Friday, January 13, 2012

Senator Ashford's Offers Bill to Amend 2010 Law

Early this week, Senator Brad Ashford introduced LB 933, an amendment to Nebraska’s school attendance law that he believes will go a long way to addressing the negative consequences of the law. While I see this as a good faith gesture and the beginning of what could be a positive dialogue with parents, the amendment falls short of addressing the primary concerns that have arisen.

Nebraska’s intense focus on school attendance as a strategy to decrease juvenile delinquency and educational failure was well-intentioned, but has a faulty foundation. It operates on a fundamental mistrust of parents and principals, who in the past were primarily responsible for excusing children from school and exempting them from being classified as “truants”: status offenders under the mandatory school attendance law.

A key provision of the law passed in 2010 was the removal of any distinction for excused absences. Instead, schools are now required to file a report with the county attorney when a student reached a total of 20 days of absence. This was based on a belief that, since young children who miss 20 days of school do so almost entirely with excuse from a parent, there absolutely must be county attorney review to verify that students who are reported sick by their parents were actually ill.

Though Ashford’s amendment changes the location of the county level review, it does not change the fact that the county attorney is brought into every case at 20 days, regardless of the reason for the absences. Even with Ashford’s amendment, the law would continue to exclude parents from the process that determines if “further action” is needed, and only after the county attorney and Superintendent have determined what is “necessary” are the parents of the child brought in.

The law contains no constraints on school and state authorities, and provides broad prosecutorial power that allows school administrators to bring the county attorney in at “any stage in the process to address excessive absenteeism.” This broad power, added to the law in 2010, has been used to “intervene” legally in cases where students have missed only a small number of days. In one case, a student at Bellevue high school had missed only 7 days when the count attorney was brought into their case and they were required to go to court. In another case in Lincoln, school administrators brought the county attorney into the “process to address excessive absenteeism” when a middle school boy had missed only two days of school this year (both of which were excused).

In both cases, the justification used was that the student had a “pattern of problematic absenteeism”. The Bellevue high student had missed 16 days in the previous year, due to a difficult family year in which her mother suffered from cancer. The Lincoln student had missed just over 20 days the year before (days also excused by school authorities per school district policy). These missed days were the only “offense” these students had committed. They were both good students and were not previously involved in the juvenile justice system in anyway. The measures taken against these children without having been charged with any crime were intolerable to their parents, as they would be to any reasonable person.

Ashford’s amendment would do nothing to prevent these types of government intrusions into families' lives. The Nebraska Family Forum is asking the Legislature to restore the distinction between excused and unexcused absences, and to limit the access county attorneys have to children who are excused under school district policy. Law enforcement and school authorities should not be given a free hand over parents based on nothing more than the personal discretion of Superintendents and Prosecutors.

If truancy is limited to unexcused absences, and unexcused absences are defined in district policy - established through the consensus of parents, elected school boards, and school authorities - then no one gets a “free hand”. County attorneys, school authorities, and parents are held equally accountable to those policies. These limits on state authority and accountability for parents are essential to a cooperative and respectful relationship between parents and schools. It’s imperative that the state honor the judgment of parents as they exercise their rights, obligations, and responsibilities to raise, manage, direct, and educate their children.

Governor Heineman has been a steady supporter of the 2010 law, and supports the review of all cases at 20 days by the county attorney as essential to reaching the objectives of the law. Some parents have begun to wonder if the Governor shares this mistrust of parents that is so evident among other state officials. He clearly believes that too many parents can’t be trusted to make wise decisions related to school attendance, and indicated this in his comments to the World Herald. He said that the 2,500 “truants” in K-3 (less than 1%) indicated that parents are being irresponsible and “not taking their kids to school”.

Ashford has argued that because these children miss too many excused days of school and could be “at-risk” because of poor parenting, there must be “some review” of every case at 20 days. The assumption is that if the county attorney is not given this avenue to intervene, these children cannot be helped. The truth is there are a wide variety of ways that these children can be helped without county attorney “review”. The law provides school districts with extensive tools for intervention in these cases. Schools are empowered by the law to investigate the causes for excessive non-attendance. They can call parents to meetings; provide educational evaluations and counseling, and pair families with community resources that may help address the causes of non-attendance.

If parents fail to make a good faith effort to ensure that the child receives an appropriate education, to meet with school authorities to discuss attendance issues, or fail to prevent their child from being absent without a valid excuse, school districts have the authority to bring the county attorney into the case on the grounds of educational neglect. It seems counterintuitive to hand such broad powers over families' lives to law enforcement and state officials because a very small percentage of children may have their education continually thwarted by their own parents.

Governor Heineman has asked parents to trust the “good old Nebraska common sense” of state officials as they implement the plans and policies that have been derived from the 2010 law. The Nebraska Family Forum is asking the Governor and members of the Judiciary committee to trust the common sense of parents and local governance. We are asking that common sense be demonstrated in the drafting of our laws, as well as in the implementation of them. If we can't trust public officials' common sense to protect us when those laws are passed, how can we expect their common sense to protect us when they're implemented?

We are asking legislators to rectify the truancy statute, and not allow Nebraska law to drop a vast net of state authority over parents, impeding our ability to provide our children with a well-rounded education and ensure their proper nurture and development.

1 comment:

  1. I have to wonder, of those 2500 kids in K-3 who missed 20 days or more, do you think those might be overwhelmingly from families with a stay-at-home parent? In those families, there's no incentive to dose the child with Tylenol and send him to school anyway. Mom or dad probably wouldn't send him back to school the day after a 24-hour stomach bug, but would let him spend a day eating soft food and recuperating. He or she would probably keep him home "just in case" when he's got the sniffles, because a day of rest might keep it from blowing up into something bigger, and because it's polite to other parents to keep him out of circulation.

    I know my children got sick much more often when they were younger. And since I've made the necessary sacrifices to be at home and care for my children full-time, I have more flexibility to keep them home when they're ill, than if I were working out of the home and needed to get back to work ASAP. But this law puts parents like me at risk of government interference for making those ordinary choices. Wouldn't it be interesting to study how those little kids who missed lots of school in K-3 turned out in 10th, 11th, and 12th grade? Might we discover that they were actually among the best students, because their parents had nurtured them according to their unique needs in their early years? (And just so we don't get into an "I'm offended" exchange, I don't think families with two working parents are in any way less caring and nurturing than their counterparts with a stay-at-home parent. I'm talking about the practical realities of the two different arrangements. It's far easier to keep a kid out of school when they're sick, if there's a stay-at-home parent, than when parents need to get back to work.)