Friday, December 30, 2011
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.
Equally impacted are those children who need specialized instruction on the other end of the spectrum. Anne Slingwine wrote on the NFPF Facebook group about her daughter who "was bored in school" and was not sufficiently challenged by school curriculum, especially in her daughter's subject of interest, science. Anne described her long ordeal working with the schools to get her children the "the education they deserve." I believe that Anne makes an important observation when she says that her "daughter is not the only one, and I wonder how many kids have lost interest in science because they are bored."
Every year I felt that school chipped away another chunk of his precious love of learning. I believe the hyper-focus at ever younger ages on reading, writing, and arithmetic with practically no enrichment in the sciences, history, and geography leave many kids bored and disinterested in school. When my son was a 2nd-grader, he came home in tears one day. With only two weeks left in the year, he was very upset when he realized that they would not finish the last chapters in their classroom science book.
It was as though he endured school for the pure moments of education when he could enjoy learning new and exciting things about the world he lives in. I did as much as I could in the few short hours after school (hardly enough to make a real difference) to help ignite his love of learning, and promised him regularly that it would get better as he got older. One time in third grade he asked me when they would learn about Supernovas, and I had to answer, probably not till high school or collage. How sad!
I too hope for real education reforms, reforms that will place the emphasis back on well-rounded quality teaching and classical education. Steve Jobs said the most important thing in education was “A person who incites your curiosity and feeds your curiosity.” Our public education system seems more and more to ignore the unique genius in every child, and in many ways fails our special needs children, whichever side of the standardized test they fall on. What true education should do is strive to develop in each child their innate talents and abilities through exposure to a broad classical education, recognize that a child develops through a number of basic stages at different ages, rather than putting each child in a rigid prescribed box, and a good education must always Ignite a passion for lifelong learning.
NCLB, and the philosophies that preceded it, have almost completely changed the paradigm of education to one in which children are “forced” to learn only the basics required for proficiency in testing. The path our education system is on today will never be able to generate an inner enthusiasm for learning within every child because it no longer presents a natural environment for the development of curiosity, creativity, and imagination that allows motivation to arise from within. "No Child Left Behind" and like agendas do not result in closing the "achievement gap"; they result in diminishing overall achievement.
"Direct instruction" may be effective at teaching skills and facts, but it is inadequate for fostering the curiosity and creativity that are more important in the long run. In a recent American Academy of Pediatric report, parents are warned of the relationship between increased depression and anxiety in children, the lack of the simple childhood pleasure of unstructured play, and "the national trend, to focus on the academic fundamentals of reading and arithmetic, spearheaded by No Child Left Behind. Compound that with extended hours in after-school programs that emphasize academics, the hours of unsupervised video gaming and constant T.V. and you have a recipe for a nation that cannot create, work, or think."
Thursday, December 29, 2011
Thank you for contacting me regarding truancy in Nebraska.
Before 2010 and the passage of LB 800, the truancy laws of Nebraska required school districts to have a written policy describing how they would notify their county attorney of truancy. By law before LB 800, school districts were required to send notification once 20 absences were reached and could make the decision to notify the county attorney after fewer absences. What LB 800 changed is the school district's ability to use or not use excused absences.
School districts are allowed to pass policies that state the school district will notify the county attorney after a child has accumulated 10 absences. This is the case with Millard Public Schools and was allowed prior to the passage of LB 800 and LB 463.
All Learning Community school districts now use the same form to notify the county attorney of excessive absenteeism. On this form the school district is able to check off the recommendations that the "absences are documented illnesses that makes attendance impossible or impracticable."
One misconception is that before the passage of LB 800 and LB 463, parents were allowed to excuse their child from school for any reason they chose. In 1901, Senate File No. 231 became law requiring children between the ages of seven and fourteen to attend school.
In 1959, LB 492 was signed into law requiring children to attend school "each day that schools are in session except when excused by school authorities, unless such child has been graduated from high school." I recommend you speak with your school board members about your concerns as to what constitutes an excused absence, as this is not set by the state.
In regards to visiting a dying grandparent, Millard Public Schools does excuse students per their district policy, due to the death or serious illness of the student's family member, which includes grandparents. If your child was not allowed to be excused due to a grandparents dying, I encourage you to speak with the school district and your school board members to correct the attendance record.
Thank you again for sharing with me your concerns over Nebraska's truancy laws. I encourage you to follow the Unicameral when we reconvene for the 102nd Legislature, 2nd Session in January 2012. "The Salvation of the State is Watchfulness in the Citizen."
State Senator, District 39
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Millard school district Superintendent commented on the new “attendance law” at a school board meeting and told parents that because the law makes no distinction between the reasons for an absence that the district no longer pays deference to previously excused absences under the policy like personal illness (even without a doctor’s note), appointments, a funeral, wedding, or graduation, etc. He said, “Changes in our policies are to line up with the State law”. “Are to line up”, tells me that the law has effectively eliminated the concept of excused absences and regardless of the reason I give my school for my son’s absence it could cause me and my son to answer to a judge.
My stress over this law intensified when my mother became very ill while visiting my sister in New York and was hospitalized with seizures of unknown causes. My sister needed my help to care for my mother and I had to take my son with me to New York because his father works 12 hour-shift, days and I have no other family here in Nebraska. Though my son is on the honor roll and up until then had NO history of absences I was still worried. It was the things I can’t predict that concerned me. What would I do if my mother became ill again and it required more time away from school?
My anxiety over the trip was compounded when I found out that the Millard school district had revised their attendance policies and would not allow my son to take his work with him. The policy designed to discourage planned absences, makes it more likely that my son will fall behind in school when he misses school. Not only will my son be required to make up his work after he returns but he will have twice the work load keeping up on current work at the same time. The state law and my school district has put my family in an impossible situation where I am forced to choose between my only parent and my only child.
I see these senarios playing out in my friends around me and I wonder how we got to this place in Nebraska, of all places. A friend of mine was also in an impossible situation. My friend, a single mom with no family here in Nebraska (Sudanese placed resident), works for the Douglas County Health Department. When her state job required all of the staff in her department across the state to attend a three day mandatory training in Kearney, she had no choice but to drive her children to Minnesota (where her nearest family member lives) the Friday before, drive back to Kearney to attend the training for the first three days of the work week and then drive back to MN to pick up her children. In total her children lost 6 1/2 “unexcused” days of school and as a result she has been “referred” to the GOALS team. She is dealing with social workers who are investigating her. They scrutinize how long she leaves her children unattended from when school is out to when she gets home from work. Unfortunately for her she does not have the resources and is trying to be as compliant as possible.
How did we get to this place? Why have Nebraska lawmakers created a law that inspires school districts to go so far to “improve attendance” that they actually make it harder for kids to be responsible students when they need to be absent from school? Is it responsible for lawmakers pass a law that requires the state scrutiny of a hard working single mom doing her best for her kids simply because her kids miss some school? We are on the wrong track with this law and I hope that it’s not too late to turn it around. I risk entanglement with CPS and juvenile court when I exercise my parental authority to judge what is in the best interest of my son and family when school attendance is involved not to mention the potential it has to affect my license to practice in the state of Nebraska in my health profession. The loss of this freedom is directly linked to the law passed in Lincoln and in order to recover what I have lost it is absolutely nessisary that lawmakers restore the distinction between excused and unexcused absences. In the words of Albert Einstein, " sometimes education gets in the way of learning".
Millard School District
Monday, December 19, 2011
December 16, 2011
In 2008, my children and I joined more than 400 homeschoolers who marched on the Nebraska State Capitol and demanded our rights. You supported our cause unequivocally. If I remember correctly, you even promised to veto legislation that would place further restrictions on Nebraska homeschoolers. You were a believer in a parent’s right to direct their child’s education.
So I have been absolutely stunned that you continue to stand by LB 800 and LB 463, the invasive, overreaching, family damaging, anti-parental rights truancy legislation.
I have heard many parents comment that this is just a sign that Nebraska is becoming more “liberal,” “progressive,” and even “Marxist.” I quickly tell them that our self-proclaimed conservative, Republican governor was behind this nanny-state legislation, aided by a Republican state senator. Parents are shocked and so am I.
I am shocked that you continue to stand by as innocent families are judged, scrutinized, and threatened by their school districts, dragged into court and into our failed DHHS system, forced into pseudo “therapy” at their own expense and in at least one case, jailed. Families with sick children, families with Olympic-caliber athletes, families with a parent who has just returned from Iraq or Afghanistan, even a family whose child was pulled from class to perform with her school choir at the State Capitol. All families who are “truant” according to your legislation.
Your legislation has brought down law enforcement and the juvenile justice system on all of these innocent children and parents. Your law has caused parents with sick children to spend thousands of dollars on legal representation. Your law has caused irreparable harm to hundreds of Nebraska families. Sure, maybe a few truly truant (absent without permission) students have been helped. But the collateral damage is unspeakable.
When I placed my children back in public school this year, I did not sign over my parental rights to you, to Brad Ashford, to Roger Breed, or to the State of Nebraska. Those rights are still mine and I intend to keep them.
THE TRUANCY LAW NEEDS TO BE CHANGED. THE TRUE DEFINITION OF TRUANCY (ABSENT WITHOUT PERMISSION) NEEDS TO BE RESTORED. A PARENT’S RIGHT—MY RIGHT-- TO EXCUSE THEIR OWN CHILD FROM SCHOOL NEEDS TO BE RESTORED.
My family is not your guinea pig to use for the purpose of catching truant students. My family is not available to be your collateral damage. Parents are afraid, parents are bewildered, parents are sad, but mainly, parents are ANGRY. They are angry at you and we angry parents are not going away. We are not going to “get used to it,” or “adjust to a new normal.” We are not going away until you fix this law and restore our natural rights to make decisions for our own children.
For Our Families,
Friday, December 16, 2011
Lucy Hall, whose daughter attends Clark Middle School in Lincoln, entered a truancy diversion program under threat of prosecution. She has lived the worst nightmare of every parent. She has been treated as an unfit parent because her honor roll student suffers from severe fall allergies that cause her to miss school often during that season. Under threat from a judge that her child could be removed from her home, she was required to entertain a social worker from Omni Behavioral Health weekly – in her home – among other demeaning, court-mandated interventions to “rehabilitate” her daughter, who is loved by her teachers and peers and has not had a behavioral issue at school in her life.
Lucy was told the program would end at the conclusion of the 2010/2011 school year but instead her daughter was required to meet throughout the summer with other “truant” teens, some of which are truly troubled youth, in order that she "develop bonds with other students who suffer from excessive absenteeism."
The state mandated interventions, the condescending attitudes of the social workers, lawyers, and judges, and the humiliation her daughter has suffered is intolerable. Lucy sought legal counsel because of the threatening tactics of those tasked with “helping” her daughter to recover from her excessive absenteeism. After going public with her story, which took a great deal of courage, she felt even more vulnerable and her family began discussing a move back to Missouri in order to protect themselves and their daughter.
One day in the middle of this nightmare, I inquired after her well being and received these emotional words from this discouraged mother, “I have been in a sort of fog the past few days. My mind has just been swimming with so many things to say that I don’t know how to begin! I am angry.....I am sad.....I am heartbroken and really very beaten down at this point. I am discouraged at how very few people know about what is going on or even care about it…It saddens me how few are interested in standing up for what is right.”
In the end, the Hall family decided to see it through and tolerate the “truancy diversion” program. In order to be released from the program and to ensure that they never again fall into the system, they have been sending their daughter to school with migraines. It is difficult for their daughter to function at school when she is sick but she is fully aware of the alternative and will do just about anything to avoid it. She continues to get good grades and hopes to be able to finish high school without incident.
By: Lucy Hall
We have put up with the program and I must say thankfully we are no longer enduring the stress that this put on our family. I honestly have to say that once it was all over with I just wanted to put it behind us and go on with life but I know in doing so I would not be doing my family or anyone else for that matter any favors.
My youngest son has an IEP and is struggling with more issues than I have time to list here. It's not an issue with Steven yet but the fear is very much alive and well. After my daughter was swept up in this Truancy sham last school year I am terrified that he will suffer the same fate should I let him stay home when hes not feeling well. I have anxiety attacks over the kids staying home from school now. We live in fear every day that the choice to keep them home from school could lead us into a new year of Truancy Hell. The last thing I want to bring into his already rocky education is a truancy issue. I pray they just leave us alone.
This week at a special Judiciary Committee executive session, Omaha South High School Principle Cara Riggs, said it is her job to “provide opportunities for success” for her students. Cara went on to explain that the classic definition of truancy just doesn’t work anymore. She was clear that she believes it is unacceptable for kids to miss school for any reasons other than serious illness. When questioned later by Sen. Amanda McGill about kids who miss school to participate in educational and enrichment opportunities that can only happen outside of school she said, “You're either there or you're not, people!!”
Sen. Ashford's own webpage defines truancy as “unexcused absences in public schools.” In his words, “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).” Why then has his law made my son's parent-excused absence count as truancy? If his public statements reflect his personal beliefs then he should have absolutely no objection to restoring the true definition of truancy to the state statute and shield kids with excused absences from having dealings with county law enforcement in any way.
As the law is written now, it is too risky to allow my child this type of enrichment activity during school hours. For the sake of all our kids I hope that we can agree on this basic premise, that parents have a fundamental right to direct the upbringing and education of their children and that they do not forfeit those rights upon enrollment of their child in public school. They are not required to sacrifice the well being of their children to provide educational opportunities to other children.
I am not asking for public officials tasked with the protection and welfare of children to repeal the law. I am not asking society to turn a blind eye to the plight of children who are failing to receive an education. I am not asking them to scrap the coordinated efforts to provide earlier interventions in cases that will likely lead to academic failure or worse. But I am asking them to restore the true definition of truancy and place more trust in the good old Nebraska common sense of parents.
Whatever the challenge that must be addressed, whatever the needs that must be met, we must be certain that any law has as its priority, the protection of the innocent. Whatever good is extended to those in need, whatever services are provided, the law must first protect the innocent and the freedoms of individual families or it is a bad law.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
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 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:
185% Increase from 09/10
1180% Increase from 08/09
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!!”
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sunday, December 11, 2011
Unfortunately, that didn't last long. After a month or so her allergies returned in full force as well as the sinus problems. Cystic fibrosis testing was done but did not provide us with any answers. We spent the next 2 years taking her specialist after specialist. We went to ENT's, Pulmonologist, Allergist, even chiropractors. As you can imagine our daughter missed school often during these years, but the Millard schools did a fantastic job of working with us. Our daughter did well in school and we were happy with the arrangements we had made for her.
School was one of her favorite things, she is involved in band, student council, numerous after school activities. When she was Healthy she was full of life throwing herself into any afterschool club she could. When she was sick she would lay in bed in a dark room all day sleeping battling her headaches. On April of 2010 we received a letter from the Sarpy county attorney saying we would need to appear in court regarding her absences.
Being caught up in the juvenile court system has been a nightmare for our family, especially for our beautiful sweet daughter. Our daughter has always been a happy, sweet and shy kid but a lot of fun. The day we sat with her court appointed attorney and were told that the judge had decided to put our daughter on probation was devastating. My little girl turned to me and began to cry. She said, “Mom, what did I do wrong!”
My daughter is a naturally obedient child. She wants to know that she is being good, doing the right thing. This process is breaking her. I have watched in horror as my daughter’s innocence and carefree nature has been stripped away. This has changed her personality. That they had made her feel like a criminal and she has begun to doubt herself wondering it maybe she was a bad kid.
She was interviewed by a probation officer to get “her side of things” and we were made to stay in the waiting room even at our protest. We found out later that our daughter was made to urinate in a cup for a drug test during the meeting. I was enraged! We weren't even told this was going to happen. I feel violated!
Some state officials have said that the schools hold most of the power, that upon their recommendation these cases are handled. I don’t believe them. My school has been nothing but concerned about what is happening to us. My principal has tried to protect us. In my experience there is nothing anyone can do once you fall into the system. It just has to play out and if your child continues to be absent it makes it harder to get out of the system.
I cannot prevent my daughter’s illnesses and I cannot cure them. In an attempt to keep my daughter from having continued attendance issues, my principal is having me send her to school sick and they are keeping her in a sick room. When she is sick but has no fever she stays in her IEP's teacher's room. It is a smaller room that stays quiet most of the day. She works on her homework and takes little naps, she even eats lunch there. This way they can count her present, but she can rest. I am sick about it, why shouldn’t my sick daughter be able to be home with me in her own bed. What is wrong with this picture?
We have given up everything normal and natural about our lives, we have given up our privacy. We now send our daughter to school sick to be cared for by a school nurse instead of her stay-at-home mother. We are sharing our daughter’s complete medical history with any school or state official who wants to see it. I even had my school social worker come with me to one of my daughter’s doctor’s appointments in hopes that her testimony might help us.
It’s sickening to me that I feel compelled to do these things, but I just want this to end. I want my daughter to get back to the way she was before this awful law turned our lives upside down! I keep thinking that if I just cooperate they will let us go and leave us alone, but I don’t know anymore. I have very hateful feelings towards the people who wrote this law, and those who passed it, and especially those who continue to defend it.
I’ve heard several state officials and lawmakers refer to the law as a “work in progress”, and one senator said that though “he acknowledged there have been problems in a few cases” he believes the positive aspects of the law outweigh those. I literally want to cry. I can’t believe that they believe that my family is an acceptable casualty in their plans, that my innocent daughter is a guinea pig in their experiment and that doesn’t bother them.
The way I see it, some do-good government officials passed a law designed to take out of the hands of parents, principals, and even doctors the discretion over school attendance in an attempt to provide legal oversight in all cases with the justification of “preventing” delinquent behavior among certain groups of children. In the process they have usurped that natural rights of parents, thrown innocent children into the juvenile justice system, and disrupted the healthy and happy childhoods of children like my daughter. Their error is intolerable and unforgivable.
Millard School District
After some deep thought between my husband and I, we have reached a decision The state of Nebraska has drained us. Finacialy, Emotionaly, and Physicaly Maddie has been emotionaly scarred and now carries a nasty ulcer brought on by the stress. My MS has gone in overload with everything that has happeded. We have decided to leave the state..... My husband has agreed to transfer to North Carloina with his company. NC will do well for Maddie's allergies. We just need a fresh start. I want to personaly thank everyone for being there for us. Stephanie Smith Morgan you have been a shining light for us in such dark times....I can't express how thankfull I am to have had you here for us. Keep Fighting! Gold Bless
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Homeschool Families Face Criminal Charges
New truancy enforcement laws have sparked criminal charges against several homeschool families in Nebraska. A Dawson County Sheriff’s deputy actually threatened to remove one family’s children unless they enrolled them in public school.
The family had recently moved from another state to Nebraska. Believing that Nebraska regulations permitted them to select their own school year without regard to the public school calendar, they had not filed their exemption paperwork.
HSLDA Staff Attorney Michael Donnelly called the deputy, and he agreed that it would be inappropriate to remove the children under the circumstances. However, the county prosecutor was unwilling to drop criminal charges, and the family received a formal summons to appear in court. HSLDA is working with local counsel Amber Ackerson to represent the family. So far, other contacts from homeschool families have been resolved without court appearances.
The new laws, which passed in 2010, have received significant media attention and criticism. The law shifts responsibility for making decisions about school absences from schools to the legal system. School districts must now report to their county attorney if a student misses more than 20 days of school in an academic year—even if some of those absences were excused.
The Omaha World Herald reports parental opposition.
“At what point are families no longer free to govern themselves?” asked Stephanie Morgan, a Millard parent and leader of the Nebraska Family Policy forum. “I don’t think [the government] should be intervening so often and so readily.”
Critics often cite an increase in government intervention in cases where children have been unable to attend school due to chronic illnesses. State Senator Tony Fulton reportedly said that the law should be amended because, “We are criminalizing good parents to get after bad parents.” HSLDA agrees with Senator Fulton that parents—not the state—are in the best position to determine what is in the best interests of their children.
These situations show how a law that was not intended to affect homeschoolers can nevertheless affect them. Thus, it is essential that vigilance be exercised and that homeschoolers are prepared to defend themselves both in the legislature and in court.
Friday, December 2, 2011
I am the mother of two dyslexic children, both with health issues, one of them serious. In my case, I tangled with my principal as I advocated for my dyslexic son's legal rights in his educational placement. In doing so, I was labeled as an uncooperative parent and opened myself up to Nebraska's new invasive "truancy" law.
What may appear to be my non-compliance or defiance with a school district is merely my advocacy to provide my child the Free and Appropriate Education to which he is entitled under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). My professional training and experience in special education gives me a unique perspective, and the reality is that the school district has been negligent in abiding by the laws that govern special education and quick to apply the "truancy" law as a hammer to compel cooperation when it suits them. We have felt threatened by Elkhorn Public Schools, and even Nebraska law enforcement because of their actions, but we will defend our family. We will advocate for our Rights.
Our story begins when, to be closer to family and have a more positive educational experience for our entire family, we moved to a small Nebraska town from Texas. Two years later, we moved to Omaha to enroll in Elkhorn Public Schools (EPS). Elkhorn came highly recommended for our two special education kids. While we looked for a house in the Elkhorn district, our son was enrolled as a Temporary Non-Resident student at Elkhorn South High School. Our younger child, on the other hand, was enrolled in a private school.
At our first meeting in August to discuss our son's education plan, we requested the reading program which had been recommended in the recently performed independent evaluation, with a history of scientific research in dyslexia remediation. We also discussed our son's verification of "Other Health Impaired" due to chronic illnesses. Independent experts in the field had informed us of the need to have "excessive absences" as an accommodation in his Individualized Education Plan (IEP), as well as establish an Individualized Health Plan. EPS was provided copies of both at the time of enrollment with physician signatures.
Being a parent who is also a professional with almost 30 years of experience, many of those years in the field of Special Education, as well as possessing a Master's degree as a Dyslexia Specialist, I sought an "Independent Educational Evaluation" (IEE) by a Pediatric Neuropsychologist. We based our request for our son's educational placement with Elkhorn South on the IEE. As parents, however, we also based it on an extensive evaluation from Texas Scottish Rite Center for Dyslexia (same recommendation), evaluations from previous Pediatric Neuropsychologists (same recommendation), tests, public school evaluations, homework, class work, readability of texts, etc. Our request was based on our years of experience in public and private schools with our son, scholarly research, reading programs which have worked and haven't worked, and information provided from EPS, including progress our son has and hasn't made.
To our knowledge, EPS based their decision on the fact they only offer one type of reading program, which, by the way, is absent of important components necessary for students with dyslexia. These components cannot be implemented by untrained staff as "strategies," nor can this type of programming be performed by district staff merely by reading a manual.
I was informed a week or so later that the district had no intention of providing the reading service we requested and agreed upon in our meeting. We removed our son from the district's reading program, which had been a compromise we reached to obtain the recommended services from the IEE. The district's program does not meet his particular needs, and without meeting our sons identified needs, his overall reading progress will reach a ceiling and he will not reach his literacy potential. The district responded by subdividing another class of his into a smaller class for "reading fluency and comprehension." This class was supervised by a Para-professional who "worked in the office," and contained four other students who it seemed, were low functioning. This class met in a completely separate room with a separate "teacher". We immediately found this placement not only inappropriate, but harmful to our child.
I requested information from the principal, but it was not forthcoming. As parents, we decided until we received it, it was in the best interest of our son to keep him out of the class that day. We had already begun getting him the reading remediation the district had refused and the time would be well spent. Hopefully the requested information would be obtained, or other options could be explored.
Instead, I was threatened with truancy.
As parents, with no educational options or alternatives offered, it's difficult to view any email in which a principal responds by saying "attendance is non-negotiable," and using the word "truancy," as anything but a threat. EPS claims they were just "informing" us about the "truancy law." To even offer "information" on truancy in a situation where it is presented as the only alternative to a problematic situation is in and of itself a threat.
What followed next is almost unspeakable. Within 12 hours of being threatened by the ESHS principal with "truancy" prosecution, I received a phone call from the Assistant Superintendent at EPS telling me our youngest child, who had never been enrolled in the Elkhorn district and was attending a private school, was truant.
That's right. My child attending a NDE accredited private school was truant.
Despite the fact that my youngest child had been in school the entire time, Steve Baker and his staff made a referral to the Douglas County District Attorney's office for truancy against my youngest child who was neither living in his district nor had ever been enrolled in any of his schools. The referral went through County Attorney's Office and on to Child Protective Services.
I grew up in Nebraska. I brought my children back because we thought the Midwest values of family and freedom still existed. We thought coming home to Nebraska would be the best thing for our kids. We believed when we were told that Elkhorn schools would reflect those values in their professional ethics and values, and model those for our children. After all, this is where we learned them.
But I guess we were wrong.
Aside from the disappointment of not finding the positive educational experience and community for which we had prayed, we find a truancy law that not only violates district policy, but State and Federal regulations for students in Special Education. There isn't even an appeal process before a referral is made to the County Attorney for Special Ed students. It is a violation of a student's Civil Rights under the Federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Try to find a Special Ed attorney in Nebraska who doesn't work for a school district though.
As a parent of 2 dyslexic children with serious health issues, and a cancer survivor myself, I have fought to live, I have fought to keep my children alive, and I have had to fight to obtain an education for them. Because of that, my relationship with my children is sacred and hallowed ground. The law is diminished by the inappropriate application of the law by individuals in positions of power and authority. To go after my children because of a problem they have with me is outrageous, but that is the abuse this law allows.
Elkhorn Public Schools