Thursday, December 15, 2011

Executive Session: The Classic Definition of Truancy Just Doesn't Work Anymore

I participated this afternoon in an informal round table executive session of the Judiciary committee to discuss Nebraska’s school attendance law. Brad Ashford, committee chairman, invited special guests from state and local government, and the media. I was the sole representative of parents at the table. Although I was grateful to be there, it seemed that the voices of concerned Nebraska parents may be getting lost in the halls of our government. It was evident that the “experts” in the room felt certain that they are doing what is best for our kids and that the complaints of parents are just the natural growing pains of these monumental reforms.

Commissioner of Education, Rodger Breed, started the round table by giving his full support to Nebraska's “truancy law” and recommending that NO changes be made to the law for at least two more years. Breed said the law is working to improve overall school attendance in our state and circulated correlative data linking school attendance to standardized scores. Breed seemed to be using academic performance as justification to require “oversight” in all cases of school absence, excused by a parent or not.

His position was in sync with Governor Heineman's, who believes it is acceptable to give the natural rights of parents to the government in order to “guarantee” that all students reach the same level of proficiency in school. It’s incredible that this idea passed without a challenge in a room filled with representatives of citizens in Nebraska. My question would have been "when did it become acceptable to put families under the jurisdiction of the county attorney to ensure that they perform well on the NeSA test?"

I was surprised when Senator Ashford asked me to speak next, and because it was early in the meeting, I kept to my prepared remarks. I quoted Senator Ashford’s web page, which defines truancy as “unexcused absences in public schools.” His site further explains that “one of the first signs that can predict a path of trouble for many youth is their absence from school (other than for parent-excused absences and illness).” I told Ashford that if these were indeed his beliefs then we agree completely, and then I proposed that we restore the classic definition of truancy to the law, as well as the balance between parental rights and school responsibilities, and allow parents to work with their local schools to craft common-sense attendance policies.

Dr. Kevin Riley, Gretna Superintendent and representative of the GOALS team, defended the law and the GOALS initiative in his comments. He said that very few people understand the issues with school attendance better than he does. Very few have the experience of dealing with student attendance everyday for 17 years.

Dr. Riley said our 100-year-old mandatory attendance law had “gone largely ignored” until now, and I wondered what he meant by that. I wondered if he is in the faction of people who believe that under mandatory attendance laws, parents have never had the “right” to excuse their children from school for any reason, and the fact that we have traditionally honored parental excuses means we’ve been ignoring the law.

Dr. Riley said that school administrators needed this law so they could “collaborate with those agencies that have statutory responsibility over the welfare of children.” He said “the law is not a heavy-handed way, but a collaborative way,” and the GOALS team is completely voluntary. He said, “If parents don’t want help, we don’t interfere.” It seems that state officials are disconnected from the sentiments of ordinary citizens who view the convergence of law enforcement and education as fraught with serious consequences for the freedoms that we rely upon to be the best parents we can be.

As I sat there in the circle, I thought, "these are the people the governor was referring to when he said that we should trust the 'good-old Nebraska common sense of state officials.'” Some of them seem very trustworthy. My personal impression of Dr. Riley is that he is a very sincere traditional sort of guy, and I think Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine is a level-headed, genuine public servant, but not every county attorney, not every superintendent, not every judge, not every social worker is as trustworthy. When government allows this type of broad oversight into the everyday and most intimate parts of family life to assess, evaluate, scrutinize, and judge you, a flood gate of possible abuses opens us now and in the future.

It is easy for Dr. Riley to say “we (superintendents) know the kids who are in trouble, the families who are struggling” and ask us to trust that he will check the right box when he turns in your referral to the county attorney, but I don’t understand why he can’t see that parents deserve his trust and respect. Children are given to their parents at birth, and their parents know their kids better than the superintendent, they know when their kids are in trouble and struggling, and they will seek help.

Mark Young, Hall County Attorney, confirmed something I have written about before: that the intimidation factor in this law starts with the first letter parents receive at 5 days, warning them. He said that just sending a letter to parents telling them they're getting close to that point when they will be placed in the truancy program has improved attendance. Young also recommended that no changes be made to the law and added his voice to the growing chorus of state officials whose “common sense” says they should ignore the growing concerns of parents and the simple fixes, and instead give the law more time to be “refined in practice.” He said, “As time goes by people will become more comfortable with the process.” Which is what they're counting on, people becoming comfortable with greater government oversight of their lives. These changes are a concerted effort to shift the parenting paradigm, and in order to do so successfully, they’ve got to have some years of discomfort until people settle into the new normal. I, for one, do not want my new normal to be living in a state where I can’t take my children out of school for an important family trip, to visit an aging grandparent, or to participate in some “unsanctioned” educational opportunity that I deem worthwhile.
Don Kleine

Don Kleine has said that, “Our perspective is to help!” He said that the “truancy diversion” program is not punitive in nature. Don Kleine explained that the goal is to figure out what the issue is and get needed services to the kids. He said that, “we’ve even had physicians participate.” I’m glad their intent is to take a less punitive approach with truant kids, but the problem is that thousands of kids are ending up in the county court house who aren’t actually “truant!" A great number of them are absent with legitimate excuse and should never have files at “truancy triage”.

Kleine provided this breakdown:

2008/2009 Referrals
2009/2010 Referrals
2010/2011 Referrals

350% Increase
185% Increase from 09/10

1180% Increase from 08/09

24% of referrals will have no further action taken after the triage meeting
33% of the youth go through diversion process
8% have petitions filed in Juvenile Court
29% were already involved in Juvenile Court
6% were referred to other programs/counties

I asked him after the meeting if he has a more detailed breakdown. I told him I was interested to know of the kids who went into diversion, how many had 5 or more “unexcused” absences? I believe with a more detailed breakdown of academic records and those with excused absences, you would find that our proposal to restore the classic definition of truancy at a tighter threshold would be effective in identifying those who could benefit from a diversion program, versus those who are in no need of intervention.

Cara Riggs, Omaha South High School Principal, said it is her job to “provide opportunities for success.” I couldn’t agree more, but that’s not really what she meant, because she continued by talking about providing particular outcomes for her students. Outcome-based education has replaced opportunity-based education in the last two decades, and No Child Left Behind was a major catalyst for this shift. Rodger Breed alluded to this shift in his comments at the meeting. He said we need to “re-evealuate how often we allow children to be absent from school” and suggested that with greater pressures on schools today to “guarantee” that each child reaches certain proficiencies, our public school are less flexible in facilitating the unique situation of exceptional kids who seek enrichment outside the classroom. His comments reflect the reality that when schools shift their focus from providing opportunity to guaranteeing "success," the inevitable result is less freedom - less freedom to pursue excellence.

Cara went on to explain that the classic definition of truancy just doesn’t work anymore, because it enables parents make excuses for their kids, and desperate parents give up. She was clear that she believes it is unacceptable for kids to miss school for reasons other than serious illness. When questioned later by Sen. Amanda McGill about kids who miss school to participate in educational and enrichment opportunities outside of school she said, “You're either there or you're not, people!!”

Brenda Council
Sen. Brenda Council told a story of a constituent who called her so upset because she had been referred to the county attorney, even though her daughter had excused absences for sickness. Council then investigated the case by calling the school to find out what was going on, and she learned the “other side of the story.” She said the mother had been excusing her daughter and saying she was sick when she wasn’t. The mother’s story broke down when administrators dug deeper to find that the girl was being bullied, and when she told her mother she didn’t want to go to school, the mother just called her in sick.

This started an interesting discussion about the validity of “truancy stories” told to the public by parents. Kevin Riley, Gretna Superintendent, speaking of some specific case that went public (that he could not identify) said those who handle these cases know things about them, but they can’t run to the media and talk about it, because of privacy laws. He said most of the time, if people could hear both sides of the story they’d say, “OK, that makes sense!”

Amanda McGill
I was grateful to Sen. Amanda McGill when she redirected the discussion to touch on the concerns that some parents have voiced through the Nebraska Family Forum. Sen. McGill asked about the impact on our high-achieving kids who miss school to take part in educational travel, once in a lifetime opportunities, club sports and other sporting that is not provided as an in-school program like ice hockey, gymnastics, golf, ice skating, etc.

Omaha South High Principal set the tone and response to this line of questioning by responding promptly with her own set of questions. “Why are they taking their kids on those trips while school is in? Why are they participating in sports while school is in?” It was her settled opinion that kids should not take part in these types of activities and that being in school everyday was far more important.

Her sentiment was shared by the Commissioner of Education, Rodger Breed, who described how this plays out. He said what happens is a kid in Algebra II, for example, “takes a once in a lifetime trip, then he gets home and gets sick, then he starts his golf season… and he falls behind in math, because he has holes in his knowledge."

I challenged this line of thinking and told Commissioner Breed that I know plenty of parents who ensure that their kids get their work, do their work while they're gone, and turn it in as soon as they return. I told him there are plenty of parents capable of overseeing their child’s education during such absences and that it was my observation that most children involved in these extracurricular activities maintain excellent grades. What I didn’t say, but wish I had, is that parents know best the capacities of their child to handle such absences, and most parents consider this when deciding whether to allow their child to participate in activities that require some missed school. My own parents would not have allowed me to continue in any extracurricular pursuit, if I could not keep my grades up at the same time.

Rodger Breed
Breed said that when parents allow their kids to miss school for reasons other than serious illness, like travel and extracurricular enrichment, it becomes a “resource issue.” He said teachers have limited resources, and when kids are absent it makes more work for teachers to prepare lesson plans ahead of time and then help students catch up when they return. He said it is not acceptable to devote limited resources to privileged students to travel. He said that we have to re-evaluate how often we allow kids to be gone because of limited resources to reach kids at all levels.

Sen. Tyson Larsen said he’d have to get his school records out and take a look at his attendance in high school, but that it seemed to him he missed school fairly often because of his many extracurricular activities, which were not school-sanctioned activities. He told the story of a constituent who contacted him about this law who was a serious rodeo competitor and had missed school in pursuit of a national championship; as a result, this constituent had been referred to the county attorney in her rural Nebraska county. Larsen said that something like a rodeo championship is an important experience that should not be missed because of this law.

Sen. Bob Krist voiced his concern for ordinary kids whose parents take their kids out occasionally to go see family members, the parents who can’t afford to send their kids off to Spain or somewhere exotic, but family travel is still important to them. He expressed his concerns for military kids who want to take time off to be with a deployed father who returns home for a visit.

Kevin Riley
Kevin Riley, Gretna Superintendent, said that he was sympathetic to families who take time to travel for family reasons. He said it is something he did as a father. He said he values this important aspect of family life and that his district excuses these absences (within reason) when parents communicate with the school and the children are doing well academically.

Both Breed and Riley acknowledged that there is inconsistency in these policies across school districts. Breed said that the Superintendents plan and the mandate that schools have a plan in conjunction with the county attorney - key provisions in the LB 800 and LB 463 - should by design lessen the inconsistency, as school districts work together throughout the city toward a cooperative process. He said that over time we would see these discrepancies between school district policies be significantly diminished. I wondered in what direction would my district move, closer to Gretna's attendance policy, where they still honor family travel, or would Gretna move the way of MPS and OPS, and no longer excuse any travel except for weddings and funerals?

When the county attorneys in the room weighed in, they agreed that if the schools excused it and if the school gave prior approval to the travel or other extracurricular absence, they would not act against that family. Rodger Breed said that in the end this was a local governance issue and that elected “school boards decide what district policy will be and that they are in control and the superintendent must follow their board policies.” He said that superintendents do what their school boards want, because they answer to the School Board for their job. I wondered what school board he was thinking of that held more power in reality than the superintendent does over these issues? In my experience with school boards, they are rubber stamps for superintendents, who drive the policy in their districts.

Don Kleine said that his office would follow the recommendations of school administrators, and if the schools indicate no need for further action, then they will do nothing. I questioned Kleine to explain what “doing nothing” looks like; would students and their parents still be summoned to the court house? Kleine answered with some double speak when he said, “We are going to look into it; we’re going to ask the triage team to take a look to verify the records, but then we will do nothing.” I explained that to ordinary, everyday, law-abiding Nebraskans, this “truancy triage” process is intrusive in and of itself. They are summoned to the court house, their record scrutinized by law enforcement, and then told they can go home and the county attorney will “monitor” them. The fact that the court takes no legal action or that they escape diversion is a relief, but it does not alleviate the concern that these parents have about a law that requires kids with excused absences to have any dealings with the court.

Brad Ashford
Sen. Ashford closed the meeting by saying "I think we can all agree that this law is helping many children attend school more often and perform better in school, that it is getting help to kids who need it." At this point if Ashford leaves the law as it stands, he will do so with the full backing of Governor Heineman's administration and in particular the state Commissioner of Education, Rodger Breed. Ashford told Martha Stoddard of the World Herald that "he will be talking with other senators in the coming days about how to address concerns, without losing the focus on getting students to school." So contact your senator and be sure he/she represents your interest in those talks! I certainly hope that will change. I hope that the desires of parents for their kids will at least equal the opinions of “experts” at the round table today.

I know that for many of you, it is seriously discouraging to hear some of these comments, but I hope that instead of feeling hopeless, you will be emboldened to be heard, more determined to work for the reasonable protection of your way of life, and for families' freedom. Now is not the time to feel defeated; this is the beginning of the process, the beginning of the battle. What we are asking Sen. Ashford and the judiciary committee to do is simple. It will not destroy their efforts to intervene earlier with “at-risk” youth, and it will not take us back to a time when truancy issues where ignored for the most vulnerable youth. Simply restoring the classic definition of truancy - which distinguishes between excused and unexcused absences - while establishing a tighter threshold for legal action, will not only protect the innocent and the rich tradition of family freedom that is cherished by Americans, but it will allow state officials to narrow their focus to those kids who are most in need of their help.

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