Thursday, November 17, 2011

The GOALS Initiative: How All the Pieces Fit

Last Spring, in an attempt to reassure concerned parents facing intrusions into their family life and possible legal action under Nebraska’s heavy-handed truancy law, Judge Liz Crnkovich spoke to parents at a meeting hosted by Millard Public Schools.

She described a new truancy program she was interested in implementing in Omaha. She talked about a new mindset needed in our community among law enforcement and parents in order to improve school attendance.

She told parents, "We're looking at a shift in thinking” She explained that county attorneys, lawyers, social workers and school officials are shifting from a mindset of prosecution, to one of rehabilitation.  She said, "We're there to provide help in a way that's not shameful; in a way that really helps." She asked parents at the meeting to shift their thinking as well, not to see “judges as judges, but as problem-solvers.” In order to understand what the GOALS Initiative is, you first have to understand this new paradigm.

Despite her assurances, parents at the meeting did not become comfortable with her description of how things would work under the new law. Crnkovich explained that the new law was needed "to help our children grow and be better citizens.”

After the meeting parents discussed the often used "our children", and felt the whole tone of the meeting was demeaning to their parental role. She seemed to be dismissing their primary responsibility to teach their children to be “better citizens”. The comment, though well meant, illustrates the dividing point between how these parents view their children, and how they are viewed by the professionals tasked with implementing the new truancy law.

The judge made it clear at the meeting that the law represented a fundamental shift in authority over school attendance from parents and principals, to lawyers and judges. The shift would require the sharing of student information freely between schools, local law enforcement, and HHS.

The power to do this was granted by the legislature, with the passage of LB 463 in 2011. I finally understood that LB 463 established the Judge’s vision for what she had already named “GOALS”. She proudly told parents the clever acronym GOALS stood for Greater Omaha Attendance and Learning Services. She discussed her interest in opening a free-standing truancy assessment center so that people caught in the new truancy net would meet one-on-one with this multi-disciplinary team of social workers, lawyers, and judges, rather than being sorted through group meetings at the court house.

Each piece has fallen into place: first the passage of the laws in 2010 and 2011, which Crnkovich called the “hammer” to compel parents to cooperate; then the Superintendent’s plan, mandated by the legislature, which created the GOALS Initiative and was followed by the tightening of local school district attendance policy; finally, the Memorandum of Understanding, which brings local law enforcement and state agencies on board and puts in place the first steps to the future establishment of the assessment center. All of this has been done with little opposition from public officials - from state senators to school boards - and within a very short time frame.

What role does each piece play in the plan? I'll try to make it as simple as I can.

First, Nebraska stripped away any reference to classic truancy and used the mandatory attendance law to improve school attendance across the board, not just among struggling students. Inspired by a belief that “attendance at school is the single most important element to a students ability to learn and be successful in school and life," Nebraska lawmakers seem to have set their sights high, requiring near-perfect attendance. They define a student who misses five days of school as suffering from “excessive absenteeism”.

This paradigm leads to a whole menu of early interventions founded on the idea that "early truancy” leads to academic failure, behavioral problems, and eventual delinquent behavior. To accomplish what proponents believe is necessary for prevention, the law granted power to the county attorney to be “involved at any stage of the process”. This is what school authorities and Judge Crnkovich have called the “hammer” they need to compel the cooperation of parents.

Second, the members of the legislature removed any legal, statutory, or regulatory barriers at the state and local levels to sharing information on student achievement and attendance with all community partners who've been drawn in to this new framework (e.g., child welfare, juvenile justice, and criminal justice agencies). This was accomplished in 2011 under LB 463, and the GOALS Initiative was organized under the Superintendent’s Plan to Improve School Attendance in Douglas and Sarpy County, as mandated by the law. This plan provides schools with the ability to refer students to the multi-disciplinary team at the earliest stages of what they assess to be “problematic absenteeism”.

Third, the GOALS Initiative is seeking formal ratification of its agenda, and official cooperation from all community partners, through the adoption of the Memorandum of Understanding. As stated in the memo, “GOALS supports the removal of barriers” to the sharing of data and information needed to intervene with “at-risk youth."

In addition to sharing information, the GOALS Initiative relies on the “pooling" of "existing resources” and is “financed through in-kind services.” This is how the plan claims to be budget neutral, though the true cost of the GOALS Initiative is entirely unknown. There are evidently increased costs associated with vast increase of cases that most certainly will fall within the jurisdiction of the GOALS team.

Followers of these developments already anticipate other future costs. The plan declares the intention to create an “actual center, accessible by parents, where trained staff can more broadly coordinate services among the Interlocal partners.” The memorandum builds the framework for this center when it proposes “to co-locate MOU participation personnel, so as to best achieve the success of the GOALS initiative to maximize the service provision to families.”

Judge Crnkovich has been a key player in this precipitous plan to transform the way Nebraska handles school attendance on every level. The World Herald reported that Crnkovich launched a pre-court truancy diversion program in 2010. This was likely the beginnings of a more permanent and more broadly structured early-intervention team.

At the Horizon high school meeting she referenced programs is other cities that had built free-standing truancy assessment centers that provide for a "less confrontational approach" to interventions by state and local law enforcement agencies. The article quoted the judge as saying, “Confrontation doesn't translate into problem-solving and helping these kids change.” But she seems to show a very different face to ordinary citizens than she does to legislators, throwing parents in jail when they attempt to explain their son's medical absences and wearing her black robes in meetings with students to “show she means business.”

The Truancy Court project implemented by truancy court judge Joan Byer in Kentucky appears to be the model for the GOALS Initiative. It seems that Judge Crnkovich wishes to play a central role in a Nebraska version of the Kentucky program. Judge Byer described her role in the Kentucky program as using her unique abilities to "delve deeper into the causes of truancy...finding solutions to those problems.”

Like Judge Byer, Judge Crnkovich sees herself as an energetic, enthusiastic advocate of children. Judge Crnkovich agrees with the idea that "Judges, the Division of Juvenile Justice, the Department of Social Services, the school, mental health and social workers all need to be involved." In cases of real truants - kids who are missing school without their parents knowledge and consent - this may be so.

But in the case of kids whose families are fully aware and involved when they're absent, it is not. What Nebraska officials need to understand is that parents are saying they don't want their families involved with these state agencies. They don't see what the truancy teams are offering as services, because services are something you solicit and appreciate, not something that is forced upon you.

Every step taken to revise Nebraska law and shift the way Nebraskans view absence from school has been a critical piece in building this model. It converges law enforcement and education, as stated by the sponsor of both truancy bills, Senator Brad Ashford. The Judge is convinced that this model can be a positive approach to addressing truancy when what she sees as old ways of thinking shift, and a new paradigm is created.

Here is the major disconnect! Why should we want to make law-abiding, hard-working, play-by-the-rules Nebraskans feel comfortable interacting with state agencies and law enforcement, who foist upon them “services” under threat of legal action? And why should we want to see families with successful students curtail their personal choices because of their fear of their government? What is positive about those goals?

The guiding principles of the Superintendents plan and the Memorandum of Understanding represent a serious effort to establish a set of beliefs that lead to a new “normal” and crystallize a paradigm shift that will make its much harder to restore recognition of the fundamental rights that have been taken away from parents in the process.

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