Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Facebook Discussion with Senator McGill

My Response to Senator McGill’s Comments on the Facebook Thread: 

Senator Amanda McGill: “The law is intended to get to children who are absent for less legitimate reasons. Studies show repeated truancy is the first sign that a child could be going down the wrong path. Since the law, truancy is down very significantly. You are right that we need to create a system that better differentiates between types of absences, but I stand by the need for early truancy intervention.”

My Response: The new statute has removed the classic definition of “truancy” and replaced the discussion of “truancy” with a discussion of “school attendance” across the board. Absences are down since the introduction of this law, to be sure. It is not surprising with so many parents afraid to be seen as irresponsible and even criminal. This law is reducing absence, not necessarily truancy, and the distinction is key. When I hear “repeated truancy”, I interpret that to mean a student who is habitually truant, who is skipping school without permission, and who is falling behind academically. Prior to the 2010 we had a “system” that differentiated between types of absences, and now we have one that lumps everyone together and disregards the distinction of excused absences. This change has lead to nearly all the problems we have seen with the law, but during deliberations on the original 2010 legislation this change was seen as the corner stone of the plan. It was hailed as a triumph to remove this distinction, so that the schools and attorneys could have “oversight in all cases”, and they could have the total discretion to determine what is a “less legitimate reasons” for missing school.

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Senator Amanda McGill: “Sadly, not all parents are the good parents that you are. If a person's child is walking the streets during the school day and getting involved with a gang, don't you think the parent should be held accountable in some way?”

My Response: If the kid is walking the streets during school and involved in gang activity than this would fall under the classic definition of “truancy”, being absent from school without permission. This would fall under the law even if we distinguished between excused and unexcused in the law. Here I agree with Melanie Williams-Smotherman, “Good parents - which are the vast majority - must not be threatened with DHHS, the county attorney, a judge and a record, simply because a comparative few are struggling.” (Read: Inconvenient Truths: School Attendance Crisis)

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Senator Amanda McGill: “I would be happy to discuss tweaks to this law, but I do not believe in throwing it out… This problem may not be prevalent in your school, but it is in others.”

My Response: There are many parents who are so angry about this law and have been so adversely affected by it that in their passion and anger they call for the total repeal of the law. I as the moderator of the NFPF have called for specific solutions that both preserve the intent of the law while protecting families and eliminating the type of problems we have seen this past year. The most important change being a restoration of the classic definition of truancy, and as a way to provide earlier intervention a tighter threshold of unexcused days then our state had previously would provide an earlier point of intervention for truly "at-risk" youth. Most importantly it protects those with excused absences via school district policy so that they are never referred to the county attorney.

As the senator said, the problem is more prevalent in some schools than others. For example, Millard, which has a 96% attendance rate and out of the 3000 truancy cases last year only 400 were from Millard. And yet, Millard has rewritten their school district attendance policy to very strict, far beyond what the law requires; while OPS, where the majority of these cases originate, is not even following the law. It is because of the variety among districts that the problem would be better handle in by local districts rather than mandated from Lincoln.

Melanie Smotherman’s perspective on this topic also deserved important consideration: My son graduated from Omaha North High School (which is probably one of the schools Sen. McGill is referring to when she says "others." He was an honor student and received two full scholarships to college, in addition to the Fine Arts scholarship. Should we be victimized just because he happens to go to a particular school? The answer isn't to crudely label or stigmatize schools or school districts which happen to have more poor students enrolled - and therefore more struggling parents and kids whose opportunities aren't only being limited by absences from school, but in many other ways caused by severe socio-economic challenges. 

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Senator Amanda McGill: “I am probably the only senator who has taken the time to read this form and reply at all. Like I said, I'm open to some changes that would help responsible families. If you have specific changes other than throwing out the entire legislation, feel free to email me.”

My Response: It is a sign of great concern and character to enter the bear’s den and take on the anger of parents. The "momma bears" in this den can bite, and for her efforts, Sen McGill wins points with me. I appreciate hearing from any senator who says they are willing to be open to changes that will protect families. The NFPF has very specific changes in mind. We hope Sen. McGill will still be willing to meet with us and work to make needed changes to this law. I agree with Melanie Williams-Smotherman that the vast majority of Nebraska families are “responsible families” and that the problem the legislation attempts to address in a state wide fashion is not the crisis it has been made out to be in the halls of the capital.

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Constructive Thoughts that came out of the Facebook Discussion:

Anne Slingwine “It’s too bad that lawmakers like Amanda don't want to actually acknowledge that they passed some bad legislation. I wish they would own it, say oops, whatever and then fix it. They like to keep passing the buck”

My Response: Like Anne those of us who have worked hard for changes to this law over the last year and followed our efforts have had a disappointing civics lesson. Unfortunately, most of our elected representatives have turned blind eyes and deaf ears to the concerns of parents. We have all been treated to the run around that we now realize is the “pass the buck” way of politics. We are regular citizens, moms, and “good-old Nebraskans” and sadly this has made cynics of us all.

I believe that the faulty nature of this legislation is in part a product of Nebraska’s unicameral system. The system is not patterned after the wisdom of our founders and in many ways it fails to serve Nebraskans as it should. We send our legislators to work for five months a year, pay them practically nothing, and then push a year’s worth of legislation through one governing body with no real checks or balances. It is a system perfectly designed for passing rough draft legislation rather than a more polished final product.

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Elizabeth Botkin: “I oppose this law as yet another "victim" of it, but I believe Sen. Amanda McGill is correct in not wanting to entirely throw it out. The law needs a redefinition of "truancy" to its original meaning -- unexcused absence from school -- and provisions to protect children who are absent due to chronic illness, activities, and family events/emergencies.”

My Response: I agree with Elizabeth and I also believe from talking to a great number of parents about the law that her opinion represents the majority. What I hear parents saying is that they should be free to discern when their child has a common illness and should miss school, they should be free to discern when a family event should take precedence over class time, they should be free to allow their children to take part in enrichment activities outside of the school curriculum, and they should be free to decide what warrants an emergency. To regain these freedoms which have been removed from the hands of parents with this new attendance law, not only are amendments to the law needed, but parents will need to demand changes at their school board/district level.

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Anne Slingwine: “Amanda and everyone in Lincoln are accountable to US. If I ask a question about a bill that they read or didn't read, that they voted in favor of or against, I have an absolute right to have my question answered honestly and without rhetoric…. When we try to seek clarification, we are given a run around… I can't let my family suffer on principle... I am not willing to take that chance.”

My Response: What Anne expresses here reflects the feelings of all the friends and supporters of NFPF, especially those who have been following this legislation throughout the last year. Americans across the nation are beginning to lose patience with politics as usual and the arrogance of politicians who act as thought they are not accountable to the people. I like Anne, cannot let my children suffer and if it comes to it I also will be driven to home school, because I am not willing to take the chance. I value my family’s freedom too much to just sit by and let it disappear in the name of those less fortunate youth.

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Elizabeth Botkin: “In the future, we should probably make sure we address any officials properly with the title(s) accorded to them and keep our words objective. Yes, we're all ticked off by this law and how it affects us and others, but it's no reason to abandon proper etiquette. Regardless of how we feel about the law, these people were elected by us and for us, so they deserve at least some respect due their position.”

My Response: Elizabeth’s advice is good and sound, and we will need each other to help curb our passions to be successful. It is a hard thing to temper passions, but it must be done if we are to be successful, it is a learning process for all of us political novices. I hope that our lawmakers will be patient with our inexperience and understanding of our passion.

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In Conclusion:

By: Autumn Cook: 

“Senator McGill is one of the most caring legislators in the Nebraska legislature. She does care about what we have to say, Anne. Please don't be so attacking and condescending toward her.

“Sen. McGill, as I've studied this law, I've come to think that the most dangerous fallacy caring people can fall into here is to think that it's justifiable to trample on the rights of many good people when it will allow the few neglected to be helped. Another is that reducing absences is equivalent to reducing truancy. Absences are down since the introduction of this law, to be sure. But that's all too often because the many responsible families in Nebraska are choosing not to visit grandma, not to take that planned trip out of the country, not to attend Uncle Bill's recognition ceremony in D. C., not to let junior stay home from school even though he has a thick cough and runny nose. These are good students who've never had to worry about government oversight and, most importantly, have never been at risk of dropping or failing. This law is reducing absence, not necessarily truancy, and the distinction is key.”

“Stephanie has very specific changes for the law that would target truly at-risk kids, while protecting the rights of Nebraska families in a way that preserves the diversity of successful people - accomplished athletes who compete outside school; musicians who travel to perform and study with prominent teachers; religious families who travel for mission opportunities; outstanding academics who enrich their educations through non-school-sponsored programs and competitions; budding leaders who succeed in nationally-recognized programs that take place outside of school facilitation; and families with chronically sick kids who still do well by traditional measures: grades. The law as it's currently written targets and punishes these students.”

“Our changes would restore their rights to a vibrant, non-school-sponsored education and protect their personal family choices, while identifying and getting mentors to the kids who lack adult inspiration in their lives. The latter are the ones who actually become delinquents in connection with their absences, right? The former are no more likely to drop out and rob a store because they missed 22 days of school than they would be if they missed two. That's the distinction we need to get into the law.”

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Stephanie Morgan:

I believe we can preserving some of what the state has already created while casting a smaller more specific net. 1.) Make a clear separation between the process by which schools handle "excessive absenteeism", the missing of school excessively with excuse; and how the state addresses "truancy", the missing of school without excuse. 2.) Leave the GOALS team in place, but as the beginnings of a more effective "Truancy Mentor" program, similar to Memphis D.A. Program; TN set the threshold for a "truant" at five unexcused days in one quarter, when a student was referred to the D.A. for being truant they were not immediately prosecuted instead they and their parents were encouraged to enter the "D.A. Mentor" program. Which like our GOALS program made use of community partners and even faith based organizations and many other services to stop the "truant" behavior (remember this is skipping school). 3.) This plan would be about law enforcement tracking unexcused absences and schools tracking other absences.

Legislation would:

Defines excessive absenteeism as (1) missing school for any reason that exceeds the number of the days allowed in the district policy, (2) While it seeks to address the problem of excessive absenteeism it does not criminalize it. (3) All action or intervention related to excessive excused absneces is handled at the local level in congruence with school district policy.

Restores the classic definition of truancy (1) as being absent from school without adult permission and (2) Students who miss more than five unexcused days or the hourly equivalent in one school quarter or ten unexcused absences in one year, when such absences are not excused to the satisfaction of district policy by the parent, guardian, or other person having control of such child are referred to the county attorney for Truancy Mentoring.

Provides a mechanism for early interventions and services for truant students by (1) requiring the attendance officer to refer student to the county attorney for Truancy Mentoring if the child is absent more than five days or the hourly equivalent in one year, and (2) includes a referral to the GOALS team when a student has been absent three days without excuse.

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