Friday, October 14, 2011

A New Class of Delinquents: Nebraska’s Heavy Handed Approach

State officials continue to believe that there is nothing wrong with putting thousands of Nebraskan families under the jurisdiction of law enforcement in the pursuit of improved school attendance. In my meetings with Nebraska lawmakers I am often challenged to show any case where an A/B student with excused absences has been prosecuted or convicted of truancy under the new law. The implication is that if no “innocent” student is prosecuted there is nothing wrong with the law.

Since the passage of the law in 2010 there has been a sharp increase in school attendance and supporters of the law see this as compelling evidence of its success. It is astonishing to me that our elected leaders can not see the simple connection between the increase of school attendance and the fear parents have of becoming entangled with law enforcement. Success that comes from instilling fear in the citizenry is not a success to be proud of.

What parents are telling me is that they are sending their little children to school sick when they would otherwise have kept them home, children with serious illnesses are just pushing through the pain and showing up to school regardless of their situation, and parents are cutting out other extracurricular absences that in the past have added to the enrichment of their children’s education and life.

It should not be surprising that examples of good students being prosecuted are rare when parents who have been pressed to “voluntarily” enter truancy diversion programs under threat of prosecution. This letter was sent to a family after they went to the press with their troubling story and described in detail the major invasions into their family life that were required of their family under the voluntary program. This family entered truancy diversion under the threat of further “action” and the possible removal of their child from their home despite the fact that their daughter had been absent for medically excused absences, was an A/B student, and well liked at her school.

The child's court appointed attorney responded to the families complaints in the press in this way: 

"As a reminder, the Truancy Court process is completely voluntary. It was explained to you as voluntary in the very beginning, and it was explained to you that at any point, should [your daughter] desire not to be in the Truancy court program, she could leave the program."
"What you need to be aware of, is that if [your daughter] leaves the program, she still faces a Truancy Court filing from the County Attorney’s Office, she would still have to appear in Court, and I have no doubt that the only way this matter would be resolved is by way of a trial. That is [your daughter's] right."
"My suggestion, in [your daughter's] interest, is to continue through the program... through its duration... so that [your daughter's] truancy case can simply be dismissed by her successful completion. Your daughter has had a tremendous decrease in her absences, even if they were all illness related in the past."

Notice the polite way the mother is told to submit to court ordered visits with social workers and other truancy diversion plans or be prosecuted. How many parents would risk prosecution and the possible removal of their child from their home faced with this choice? Families are rarely going to trial under the law because instead they voluntarily cooperate out of fear, fear of having their child removed from their home, fear that a costly trial would only end in “forced” participate in the truancy diversion programs anyway, and fear of the impact that fighting for their rights would have on their child. It does not take a “trial” to put a parent’s choices under suspicion. It does not take a conviction to send the message that you are a juvenile delinquent guilty of criminal activity.

The scrutiny and humiliation that comes as a result of the condescending attitudes of state officials, who see themselves as more qualified to discern what is best for children then their parents, is apparent when the attorney casts doubt on the parent’s judgment by saying, “Your daughter has had a tremendous decrease in her absences, even if they were all illness related in the past.” This attorney obviously sees the “tremendous” decrease in the child’s absences as proof that the parents are irresponsible and in a slight of hand way accuses the parents of lying in the past. He does not for one moment think that perhaps the change in attendance is related to the fear of legal action and otherwise not in the best interest of the child.

Judge Crnkovich, presiding judge of Douglas county truancy diversion program, told Millard parents last spring, "Don't worry," all you need is to “know the process to feel comfortable about it.” Parents are getting to know the process and as they learn more and have experience with the “process” they are becoming even more uncomfortable with it.

Mike Horton, who had firsthand experience with the process, explained it this way, “What we experienced in the jury assembly room that afternoon, was the best case for limited government I have ever witnessed… we were provided a very juvenile and condescending civics lesson by Judge Elizabeth Crnkovich and asked to sign paperwork accepting the county attorney’s recommendations.” Horton explained that if they didn’t “agree with the recommendations”… the county attorney’s office would be free to pursue additional legal action that could extend as far as the removal of his daughter from his home.

They continue to insist that families are not being "criminalized" and yet they are creating a new class of juvenile delinquents and students are being summoned to the courthouse, told they must abide by the judgment of law enforcement or face further action, and are provided with a public defender if they so choose. How can the Governor and lawmakers in Lincoln continue to act as though this law is not a heavy handed usurpation of the natural rights of parents?

Parents and students who fear “criminalization” under this law are not paranoid, in most cases they are law-abiding and understand and respect the rule of law. They have absolutely no desire to become involved with law enforcement in any way and rightly so. The paradigm shift that state authorities are asking law-abiding Nebraskans to make is unacceptable to freedom loving and family centered Nebraskans. It is a dangerous course of action to desire ordinary people to be comfortable with being summoned to appear before county commissioners, judges, and lawyers. We should not ask people to become comfortable with the process that Horton described as an “example of the coercive methods of totalitarian states.”

There is obviously a major disconnect between ordinary Nebraskans and the small group of government elites who feel that we should just "trust" in their good-old Nebraska common sense. Why should we want to make law-abiding, hard-working, play-by-the-rules Nebraskans feel comfortable interacting with a law enforcement agency, seeking "help" from the government? What is positive about that goal? How can any government official who values freedom and family feel good about classifying parents or students who are succeeding in school, despite unusual circumstances that create a lot of absences, as delinquents or criminals?

The only way to strike a balance between natural parental rights and the role of the state in education is to restore to Nebraska’s truancy law the classic definition of truancy and distinguish between excused and unexcused absences. To restore to parents the right to govern their families based on their best judgment. Will there be parents who misuse the ability to excuse their child from school? Yes. But you can't usurp the parental rights of all these good people - the vast majority of parents - in the name of those few! Especially when there are programs that work at targeting those who truly need the services, without disregarding natural parental rights.

1 comment:

  1. Stephanie,

    Thank you for this excellent article. I could not agree more with your observations. I'm now reluctantly involved in this process due to my child's absences, 95% of which were due to illness.

    Treating good kids as criminals is so wrong-headed, it's hard to imagine how this law was passed. It is doing more harm than good, and I predict that it will be struck down in time. This is an infringement of the rights of parents, and a distraction for children. It imposes an unnecessary financial burden (especially if a lawyer is used), and I don't think the "scare them straight" approach is good for my child's self-esteem. Truancy is a problem that should be handled by the school systems, the way it was done successfully in Nebraska for many years.

    Lastly, the definition of truancy should not include parent-excused absences. Big brother does not know how I should raise my child.

    Anonymous Lincoln Resident