Friday, December 30, 2011

In response to Senator Beau McCoy

In response to Senator Beau McCoy’s counsel to constituents concerned about Nebraska’s new school attendance law.

A good friend of mine whose daughter suffers from an undiagnosed ailment wrote her state representative, Senator Beau McCoy, to express her serious concerns about Nebraska’s new school attendance law, and how it could very likely cause her daughter's school attendance records to land on the county attorney’s desk. The Senator’s reply to her was seriously frustrating and in her words, “He was condescending and wrote as though I am totally misinformed on the issue.”

This friend handed me the letter and suggested perhaps I reply to it in detail. I believe that Senator McCoy’s letter presents an opportunity to counter common excuses given by public officials to quell discontent among parents. He makes two primary points. First, that parents have no legitimate expectation to make judgment calls related to school attendance because of the state's mandatory attendance law. He quotes the law that says students must attend school “each day that schools are in session except when excused by school authorities”. On this foundation the Senator asserts that the law has made no significant change to attendance policy.

Second, he says that the troubles parents are facing are not the fault of the legislature but of the Learning Community, which has tightened the policy. He says that if parents are unhappy with the policy they should go directly to the school board and the learning community to address their concerns. This is not only inaccurate, it is terribly frustrating to my friend. She has gone to her district to discuss her concerns, and administrators tell her that their hands are tied and they are just following state law and she should take her concerns to the legislature.

To respond to Senator McCoy’s first point, that parents have no right to excuse their child from school, I would say that parents have long accepted the role their schools play in setting school attendance policy. Prior to LB 800, the majority of parents didn’t struggle to work cooperatively with their school attendance policies because schools have traditionally honored the judgment and discretion of parents in this area. The state legislature sent a clear signal with LB 800 and LB 463, that school districts should be more suspicious of parents in this process, and the shift in attitude has not gone unnoticed.

2011 brought significant changes to school attendance policies. The changes particularly target parents whose children are often ill or who pull their kids from school for planned activities like extra-curricular sports and planned family travel. Parents who have complained to local school authorities are told that changes were made to bring district policy “in line” with the state law. For Senator McCoy to dismiss this reality and assert that nothing has materially changed is curious, since the number of truancy filings is up 1180% since the law passed, and parents are feeling a significant shift in attitudes of school and state authorities since the passage of the law.

To respond to Senator McCoy’s second point, the changes made at the Learning Community and district level via the "Superintendents Plan to Improve School Attendance" were mandated by the state legislature under LB 463. The Plan is a creation of LB 463 and would not exist otherwise. This is one of the clear inaccuracies in Senator Beau McCoy’s letter. An exception for documented illness was not the primary reason for LB 463. Its core function was a state mandate directed at the learning community that created the GOALS Initiative.

At the committee hearings on LB 463, nearly every person who spoke in favor of the law spoke of the “information sharing” powers that the law would provide to school districts and law enforcement so they intervene earlier with children they deemed to be “at-risk”. Senator Brad Ashford, during the floor debate on LB 463, proudly described his work as a "convergence of law enforcement and education." The language in LB 463 that required school districts to have a written policy in collaboration with their county attorney on how to handle "cases in which excessive absences are due to documented illness that makes attendance impossible or impracticable”, was in no way an exemption for those students for "truancy" filings. Those students with medical excuses are still referred to the county attorney, and those students still have a file created in juvenile court, even if they are not contacted further about the matter.

The Superintendents Plan seeks to bring the school attendance policy of 11 school districts in line with the GOALS Initiative, its guiding principles and mission. Some of the foundational principals of this plan are highly objectionable, including a statement that school attendance is the "single most important element to the student's ability to learn and be successful in school and life." Guiding principles that place school attendance above the affectionate nurture of mother and father in the formative years as the single most important element in a child’s ability to learn and be successful in life are dangerous precedents to set.

The learning community did not follow this path on their own. They are not tightening the noose on parents of their own volition. It was because of the state law that mandated and sanctioned in every way the consolidation of school attendance policy within the 11 school districts of the learning community, and the cooperation of these districts with all local and state agencies with statutory responsibility for delinquent youth. For this reason, the solution is a state solution. The solution is a simple one. It is to recognize truancy as it is recognized by the US Department of Justice - as days of unexcused absence.

In Senator McCoy’s letter he says that prior to LB 800 school districts were required to notify the county attorney when 20 days were missed, but this notification was similar to the process they now follow after only ten. The change with LB 800 is that now at 20 absences schools must “file a report with the county attorney,” and students become status offenders under the law. There is no longer exemption from legal action if absences are excused by school authorities. Senator Ashford said about LB 800 that removing the distinction of “excused” absences from the law was a key provision of the reform.

Judge Crnkovich, presiding judge of the Douglas County Truancy Diversion Program, gave to Millard Parents last spring a detailed description of how LB 800 amended the law relating to violation of the compulsory attendance law (79-201). Her own information states that the two primary changes to the law in 2010 was to (1) compel school districts to file with the county attorney when a student misses 20 or more days of school in one year and (2) added the line “nothing in this section shall preclude the county attorney from being involved at any stage in the process to address excessive absenteeism” (a concept that entirely replaces the word truant/truancy in the statute).

The addition of this final point was referred to by many state officials, including the Judge and Dr. Lutz, MPS Superintendent, as a “needed hammer”. Making clear that the county attorney can be brought in at any stage in the process (language not in the statute prior to LB 800), this gives the GOALS Initiative - whose goal it is to “intervene” in cases before 20 days - the “hammer” they need to compel cooperation from parents in their “voluntary” program.

The law did not in any way strengthen local control over attendance policy, but rather stripped both parents and school districts of their discretion. As it now stands, the districts must throw all students who miss 20 days into the county attorney's net, regardless of whether or not their absences are excused under district policy. Crnkovich asked a parent of a sick child at the Horizon High School Truancy meeting, "Who discerns who's sick and who isn't?" The implication was clear: it's not the parents; it's not the principal or school district authorities; it's lawyers and judges who discern.

This is not an isolated attitude. Hall County Attorney Mark Young, who runs a “successful” truancy diversion program in Grand Island, said, “Oversight of all cases is needed to verify that students who are reported sick were actually ill." This law gives the state that oversight in ALL cases! Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, confirmed at a special executive session of the Judiciary Committee that his office is obligated to "look into" every case.

In a World Herald Article, “Nebraska goes own way on truancy laws”, Martha Stoddard wrote, “While the Nebraska absenteeism law is part of a national focus on truancy and graduation, the state's unusual approach is adding burden to the legal system.” She said, “Nebraska's law differs from most state truancy laws in two ways: While it sets a higher bar — 20 days — for legal intervention, it does not limit its scope to unexcused absences.” This is the crux of the problem!

Nebraska Family Forum supports a simple amendment to the law that tightens the threshold for legal intervention to something like 5 unexcused days per quarter or 10 per year. This would provide earlier intervention than we had before the passage of LB 800, but would reduce the burden on the court system and place discretion firmly in local school district control via school district policy.

Senator McCoy is right when he says that parents need to be involved in crafting local policy, and if and when we are successful in restoring the classic definition of truancy to the state statute, parents will have even greater need to work with their school boards to re-craft common sense attendance policies. Only with this change will local control be fully restored and local elected school boards empowered to set common sense policy that meets the unique needs of their local constituents.


  1. What surprises me most is that a family man like the Senator would feel comfortable with the assertion that parents have no right to make judgments about their own children when it comes to what takes up the biggest part of their lives - school. To say that if you choose to use the service your tax dollars pay for - public school - you must give up judgment over the best interests of your child if it touches on their school attendance in any way, doesn't seem right.

    This attitude assumes that the government is justified in looking at all citizens who are parents as suspect, looking to "sneak" their kids out of school for all sorts of willy-nilly half-baked reasons. This couldn't be further from the reality I live and experience in the lives of my friends.

    While many of the people working for changes to this law have experienced horrendous effects on their own families from this law, many have not. But we see what can happen with this law, whether to us or our neighbors, it is the same. We just want to know that should our child get cancer, he won't end up with a file at the county attorney's office; should dad receive an award in Washington, D.C. in November, the kids can come and see our national Capitol and meet the president too; should a grandparent become ill and require extra care involving family travel, our family won't be subjected to in-home visits by a social worker; should an uncle be ordained an Archbishop in Rome in February, our kids could travel to the ancient city, rather than be referred to the GOALS team for missing a history test; should mom or dad be politically active and rub the Superintendent wrong, the family won't be investigated by CPS when Junior gets mono and necessarily misses lots of school.

    If Nebraska wants to continue to claim a place in the "Land of the Free", its elected officials desperately need to take a look at what makes people free, and why protecting the civil liberties of its citizens is more important than any other job our representatives have. Is it possible that many of Nebraska’s elected officials feel that taking away fundamental rights – the right of a parent to direct the upbringing of her child free from government scrutiny – is justified in the name of improved school attendance? Public schools can have working standards for qualifying for grades or diplomas – they have for decades – without trampling all over the lives and rights of Nebraska’s citizens.

  2. I need to add, that our other public officials - not just the elected ones - fall under that last paragraph.

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