Monday, October 3, 2011

A Line in the Sand: Which side of the "truancy" law are you on?

Today’s OWH article (Parents chafe at truancy oversight) by Martha Stoddard drew the line in the sand in the growing controversy over Nebraska’s new truancy law. The article gives Nebraskans a clear choice between two fundamental philosophies. On one side you have the philosophy reflected in the words of Hall County Attorney Mark Young who said, "I don't think the parent is necessarily the best judge of what is a justifiable absence." Followed by a consensus of State officials who believe that, "Oversight of all cases is needed…to verify that students who are reported sick were actually ill and to ensure that children are not missing school for inappropriate reasons.”

On the other hand you have the philosophy reflected by opponents of the law like Sen. Tony Fulton who said, this has become “a question of what legitimately is the power of government.” Lucy Hall reflected this philosophy in her statement, "I don't think its right that they're taking away my right as a parent to say my child is too sick to go to school.” And other parents are left asking "At what point are families no longer free to govern themselves?" At the root of it all is the belief that parents have a God-given natural right to discern what is best for their children, and to suggest otherwise is outlandish.

I have often wondered how our Governor, who as the story reported, is “generally a proponent of limited government” can truly believe that this intrusive attendance law “strikes the right balance between parents' rights and the state's interests in getting children to school.” In what “conservative” play book is it OK to force a family like the Hall’s into “truancy diversion” with mandated visits with social workers even though their daughter absences were excused due to illness and “she made up her work and maintained good grades”?

Are there bad parents? Are there parents who make poor judgments? Of course, but are they a large percentage of Nebraskan parents? Is having 7% of Nebraskan students missing twenty days (excused absences included) an attendance crisis? Unfortunately it is in the creation of laws to compel the irresponsible that we enslave the responsible, and Nebraskans must keep in mind as they analyze the controversy and decide what side of the line there on, that there is no perfect solution to address all the fallible human conditions that exist in family life. Government cannot successfully micro-manage the everyday choices of parents without doing great harm to the integrity of the family and by extension the well-being of children.

The consequences of this law are a real threat to the fundamental freedoms of Nebraskans and sets a dangerous precedent of what is allowable in the name of stamping out social ills. These consequences cannot be neatly put away by a reliance on the “good old Nebraska common sense” of state officials as the Governor proposes. One parent said, "There has to be a better way to deal with sorting through people,” but to that I ask, why should the government be given the power to “sort through” people in this over-reaching way in the first place?

Mike Horton, a parent who experienced this sorting first hand said, “What we experienced in the jury assembly room that afternoon was the best case for limited government I have ever witnessed.” The Horton’s were subjected to a “condescending civics lesson by Judge Elizabeth Crnkovich” who explained the importance of compulsory education for society as a whole, to a father whose daughter is his number one priority in his life and whose A/B GPA demonstrates their commitment to education. He was then asked to sign paperwork accepting the county attorney’s recommendations under the threat of “further actions” that could extend as far as the removal of his child from his home. Some students were asked to sign a release allowing for an immediate onsite drug test. If they refused, they would be detained by local members of law enforcement while their disposition could be arranged.

Horton sat there dumbstruck, he thought, “Isn’t this an example of the coercive methods of totalitarian states? Sure come to court to explain why your son or daughter is absent, oh and by the way sir or maam, we believe your child is on drugs and we demand that you give up your personal liberties or face immediate criminal proceedings!”

Judge Crnkovich said to a group of Millard parents last spring that parents needed to shift their thinking, we shouldn’t see “judges as judges, but as problem-solvers.” She spoke of her vision to create a new program for implementing the law and toyed around with the name GOALS as a way of making this new multi-disciplinary team less intimidating to parents. She said that she’d like to see an Omaha truancy assessment center so that people wouldn’t have to go to the group meetings they were using now to sort through truancy cases. She assured parents that they had nothing to worry about and that they just needed to know the process to feel comfortable about it.

As I have come to know families personally impacted by this over-reach of government, my heart breaks for what I have witnessed. At a court date last month, I watched as a beautiful young woman sit nervously awaiting the judge’s decision, when she was told that she would be put on probations she cried out, “Why?! What have I done?” Nothing. Her absences were because of a serious allergy condition that is part of her IEP (individualized education plan) and has not affected her grades. This young woman’s mother later told me of the nightmare they have endured because of this law and said, “This has changed her!”

Senator Ashford acknowledged there have been problems in a few cases but said “positive aspects of the law outweigh those." Besides the obvious pain that such a comment would cause to the mother whose case is one of "those", in criminal law, there is the Blackstone's ratio principle: "better that ten guilty person’s escape than that one innocent suffer." Apparently Senator Ashford is willing to sacrifice the innocent to capture the guilty. I believe that supporters of this law are not counting the cost of shifting our paradigm to one of reliance upon law enforcement to sort out the minute family details of our lives and provide “oversight in all cases.”

What we cannot do is usurp the parental rights of the majority of diligent parents in the name of those few who abuse their parental role. Perhaps we come from different worlds but in my world there is no end that justifies the means when those means are to “criminalize good parents to get after bad parents”.

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