Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Morgan Family: The Saga Continues

I thought this year would be an easy one for us to keep absences down, now that my husband is home from Iraq, but life is unpredictable and already the anxiety of this law is affecting my parenting once again. Last year my husband and I sacrificed precious time together, when my husband was home for a two week break for R&R, and when he returned home from a year and a half deployment in Iraq. Instead of removing our son from school for some good quality family time, we took him out for only a couple days so that we would not exceed the 20-day threshold that would have landed us before the county attorney. Our sacrifice was not in the best interest of our son or the family; it was not made because of concern for our son's academic life which is strong; but rather it was made to avoid any possible entanglement with law enforcement under Nebraska's new truancy law.

I was sick and angry over the way this law impacted my family life last year, not because I was hauled into court and prosecuted, but because I sacrificed my child's emotional well being to keep us out of the court house. This will probably surprise some of you who think of me as a tenacious warrior who doesn't back down, but it is a serious thing to consider that standing on your principles will constitute "civil disobedience" and could result in legal action against you and your child. It is a huge risk that very few parents are willing to make, which is the reason the law has caused a sharp rise in attendance rates in the first year.

This year I committed myself to work to amend Nebraska's school attendance law, to restore the classic definition of truancy, which honors a parents authority to discern when an absence from school is in the best interest of their child. That leaves the power in the hands of parents and principles, rather than lawyers and judges. I felt relieved that I would be taking on this "battle" with my husband by my side, in a year that I thought would be routine, at a time when I assumed it would be easy to keep school absences at a minimum. I was wrong. 

Already my son has been absent six times for common illnesses and we are not half way through the year. I thought last year was a bad season for colds and flues but this year is shaping up to be worse. Some of my friends are convinced that this is because more parents are sending their kids to school sick because of the truancy law. I remained pretty calm about the absences, confident that we wouldn't reach the 20 days this year if I just avoid any days off for travel. That was until a few weeks ago when my mother-in-law was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. We began discussing planned absences that our family may need in order to visit and care for grandma. 

When I got my son's last report card, I was again reminded of the major shift in thinking that has taken place because of this law. Attendance is now the first thing on the report card, it sits in its place of prominence and importance above the grades. It is reported in a detailed chart that counts every hour of school missed. This report indicated that my son had been absent 6 days so far this year; that means via our school district policy he is an excessively absent student! Below the attendance summary was the Grade report. My excessively absent student has 9 A's and 2 B's. I wonder which they care about more, his attendance record or his grades?

So my calm confidence that this year would be different and worry-free has melted away, and I feel the concern setting in over this law once again. To take the burden off of my mother-in-law and provide the traditional family Thanksgiving, we traveled to Iowa a day early so that I could cook the meal in advance. We removed our son from school the day before Thanksgiving, adding one more absence to our son's "count". 

This absence is considered an unexcused absence under our school district's new tougher attendance policy, which was changed in 2011 in order to "comply" with the "Superintendents Plan for Improving School Attendance". There is now no "justifiable" reason for a parent to remove their child from school for travel, unless the student is attending a family funeral or wedding. So in this case, my son, who is absent to be of service to his family and ill grandmother, will be absent from school without excuse, despite the fact that he has my permission and I communicated the reason for his absence to the school. Had I lied to the school and said he was ill the absence would have been excused, but then I would have taught my son to lie, which I will not do! He can be excused from school to attend a grandparent's funeral, but not to be with a Grandparent who is still living. Where is the sense in that?

While in Iowa my family caught a ugly cold, chest congestion and scary cough, not to mention the fatigue and general "under the weather" feelings that accompany this kind of viral sickness. I was sick myself on Thanksgiving and the several days following, but my son and my toddler caught the illness just as we returned home. Monday my son was supposed to return to school after his long break, but was too sick to go. I hoped that he would be better in order to return on Tuesday, but I knew from my own experience with the cold that it was unlikely. So, I began to feel anxious about the situation. He had 7 absences at this point, one more would be 8, with three or four months of flu season ahead.

To compound the problem, my mother-in-law faces a life-threatening surgery that in the best case will be followed by many months of difficult recovery. She will need my assistance, and making arrangements for me to have some weeks available for her care and still ensure that my son doesn't miss any school is going to be extremely tricky.

With the uncertainty that faces us, my husband and I were very nervous to keep our son home from school, despite his obvious symptoms and need to recover. We were contemplating sending him to school ill, not because of failing grades or concern for his academic well being, but instead because this "school attendance" law has the potential of landing our family in court.

I have for months written about the pitfalls of this law, the negative effects it will have on family life, parenting, and the well being of children, but when it hits home, when it becomes personal, it is a disturbing feeling. I am sick with this feeling that I am "breaking the law" when I do what is best for my family. I am sick when I even think of turning away from my motherly instincts to care for my sick son in order to "comply" with the law. I wonder if I am engaging in "civil disobedience" when I pull my son from school to travel to Iowa during this time of family need. I ask myself if I am being responsible risking entanglement with law enforcement and the heartache of intrusive interventions into our family life. 

My husband and I spent an evening discussing what we should do, what is right. In the end, we decided after a night of coughing, to let our son sleep to take another sick day. Under the school district's new attendance policy, if a child stays home three consecutive days in a row, the parents must get a doctor's note or the absences will be counted "unexcused". So when Wednesday came and I knew he could have used another day to recuperate after another sleepless night of coughing, I sent him to school anyway, this time to avoid the cost of going to the doctor (knowing full well there was nothing they could do for him) to get a doctor's note.

I certainly hope that we won't reach the 20-day threshold; I certainly hope the our school social worker will judge wisely and not choose to "intervene" before the 20 day mark, that she won't refer us to the GOALS team; but there is no guarantee. It is a risk. Just being a parent, just caring for our family based on our best judgment, is a risk. It has become risky to be a parent in Nebraska, to raise a family here, and I find myself among those who have contemplated moving to a state that still honors a parents right to excuse their child from school.

Stephanie Morgan
Millard, Nebraska

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