Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Trust Nebraska Families and Restore Recognition of Excused Absences

The hundreds of members of the Nebraska Family Forum represent political opinions that span the spectrum. The specifically partisan views expressed by the writer of this piece do not represent the views of the whole group.

Dear Governor Heineman,

It was my pleasure and privilege to live in Nebraska for seven wonderful years. I was raised the daughter of an Air Force officer, so I had never lived in one location for more than four years. After my husband graduated from his MBA program, we happily chose to settle our family in Omaha; and if you add the two years I spent at Offutt as a toddler, I’ve spent more than a quarter of my life (a vast plurality!) in Nebraska. I love Nebraska!

But this past July, my husband was extended a job offer he’d always dreamed of, and we chose to move to pursue that dream. A few months before he was approached with the job offer, however, I became aware of - and concerned about - Nebraska’s new truancy law. Along with my friend, Stephanie, I initiated the movement to revise the new truancy law, and co-founded the Nebraska Family Forum.

I was homeschooling when this law came to my attention last year (and in the years when my children attended public school they never missed more than 8 or 9 days in a year at the most) so you might think I had no reason to worry about this law. But even though it wasn’t a present danger for my own family, I saw great reason for concern.

As an active Republican and Conservative - and a big fan of yours – I have been puzzled by your support for this law. I wondered if you were motivated by a desire to put pressure on school districts to deal seriously with truancy, supporting it out of concern for the kids who are failing because they skip school, or struggle to get to school; the kids who could have a better chance to succeed if supported by one of the many wonderful mentoring programs available in Nebraska communities. I thought perhaps you’d been motivated by the hope of earning federal dollars for improving attendance outcomes.

But based on your letters to concerned parents, I’m led to understand that you feel that kids ought to be in school every day, without exception; and that in order to ensure parents aren’t making what the government deems to be bad choices about the role of attendance in their children’s education, the government is justified in giving the legal system authority to investigate families for missing school, even when a school has already documented good reasons for every one of those absences.

I wonder if you realize that this law permits government intervention with a student’s family because he has a chronic personal illness,  or for competing at high levels in club athletics, or for spending time with a mom with terminal cancer, or for serving a two-week mission trip to Africa. I’m puzzled by your acceptance of this model, which attempts to achieve a set of equal outcomes (everyone passes and graduates) by forcing equal inputs (everyone is in his seat for T minus 19 or fewer days.)

Do you realize that many of the families this law is forcing into court – or into the prescribed attendance pattern to avoid court – already have good students? Do you realize that kids who have always kept up and done well in school, while achieving great things in extracurricular programs, are being pressured to quit these extracurriculars in an attempt to achieve perfect attendance? They are being threatened with investigation by law enforcement for participating in life-enhancing activities. Do you realize that mothers who used to keep their kids home with a head cold or a stomachache, are now sending those kids to school sick - against their better judgment, and fully knowing their kids are spreading illness, but feeling unable to choose otherwise?

Children who participate and excel in club sports are now at risk of government intervention. They’ve never struggled in school, and they’re at no risk of becoming delinquents; in some cases, it’s their athletic participation that motivates them to get good grades. But this law threatens their families with all sorts of government interference.

Children whose parents work in summer-heavy industries, and therefore vacation during the school year, are coming under the oversight of government authorities, because their parents can’t take a vacation during the summer break period due to work demands. These kids aren’t struggling in school, they’re at no risk of becoming delinquents; but this law allows them to be treated as such.

Children whose parents attend a work conference in an exciting city cannot travel with them, and get the incomparable education that comes from experiencing a place first-hand. These kids aren’t struggling in school and aren’t at risk of becoming delinquents; in fact, they are made to suffer from what I would contend is an impediment to their education, precisely because of this law.

Children whose parents return from military service in Iraq or Afghanistan, either on leave or at the conclusion of their tour of duty, must severely limit the number of days they take off school to spend time with their mother or father. These children are not struggling in school and aren’t at risk of becoming delinquents. But they are forced to attend school, rather than spend time with their mother or father who has been gone for years defending our freedom – and who may never come home again – if they want to avoid being referred to law enforcement. Can you see the tragic irony?

Children with illness are being prosecuted, threatened with being placed on probation, even threatened with removal from their homes. While last year’s LB 463 contained a provision that requires the school districts to have a policy on how to handle cases in which excessive absences are due to documented illness, it did nothing to actually protect these children.

We were informed by Dr. Lutz that in Millard, it is up to the superintendent how to handle those cases, and many sick children are still being referred to law enforcement. It’s apparent that Millard is not the only district where this is happening, as a girl from rural Nebraska who has hydrocephaly, and the complications that come with it, is being targeted by law enforcement. The parents of another girl with the same condition – this time in the metro area – are being threatened by CPS with removal of their child.

Can you understand at least a little about the fear and anxiety that mothers are feeling now when their children get simple illnesses, because every day they choose to keep them home is another day closer to law enforcement peering into their lives? Can you understand the growing feelings of mistrust toward the state government – inspired by this law – among good, hardworking Nebraska citizens?

When I hear of your continued support of the new law, I feel I’m watching a betrayal of conservative principles; although, I expect, an unwitting betrayal.

As a Conservative, I value the rights of individuals, and recognize that certain basic rights can only be sacrificed at great cost to society. Support for this truancy law demonstrates the opposite of those values. It demonstrates an embrace of what I would call collectivist thinking.

When collectivists look at the world, they see numbers, not people. They justify ignoring the basic rights of individuals to achieve a great collective goal – in this case, better numbers for school attendance statistics. To them, if a few people have to suffer, it’s worth the collective achievement.

But a believer in the overriding power and good of freedom understands that while you may be able to force a great collective outcome through the power of the state, it is not worth the injury to fundamental human rights; to the good, innocent people involved; nor to the fabric of society. This law epitomizes the subjugation of basic individual rights to the aims of the collective state. Nebraska certainly can improve its attendance statistics with this law – we’ve already seen that this is happening – but at what cost?

At what cost?
Governor Heineman, isn’t it possible to improve school attendance rates among kids who are skipping and struggling in school, without subjecting good people to government interference in their families?

The fear of such interference is painfully real, even among the best of parents. In our modern times, so many of us parent scared: scared of making mistakes – or doing something with our children that another person simply disagrees with – that will get us "turned in" to CPS. And this law in its current form creates yet another way to "fail" in the eyes of the state, and have our homes invaded.  The threat of government investigation is heightened in a state where kids are removed from their homes at the second highest rate in the nation, and have already been removed because of this very law.

Achieving excellent school attendance rates is good, but trusting the goodwill and common sense of the people is greater. And when you have to sacrifice the latter to achieve the former, the achievement surely comes at too great a cost.

To stay true to the promise of this country – the promise of freedom to pursue happiness; and to stay true to the purpose of good government – to maintain an orderly society through law, while protecting individual rights and liberties; this law must be amended to recognize the difference between excused and unexcused absences.

We’ve passed a law that allows people whose children have had nothing but excused absences to be referred to law enforcement! Surely, you can see the injustice in this situation?

And in the process, we’ve communicated to the average Nebraska parent that the state no longer trusts his judgment, if he chooses to use the public schools.

You know that the vast majority of parents are good parents. They only take their children out of school for carefully-considered reasons. In my case, I’ve only done it for illness, for my sister’s wedding, to allow my children to spend time with a newborn sibling, or to attend a Governor’s Proclamation Signing ceremony at the Capitol with a non-profit in which I was active. Two years ago, the law had no problem with these choices; but under the new law, I would take a risk in doing these things.

Such an atmosphere of fear is oppressive. I don’t know a single stay-at-home mom who hasn’t sent her child to school sick this year when she otherwise would have kept him home. One of those mothers sent her son to school sick with the stomach flu, and waited for him to throw up in class so the school could see he was sick and send him home. But even then, when the school required he be sent home, the absence counts toward government investigation!

I know of people who have cancelled important and educational family trips. Plenty of state and local authorities have made it clear that they think no child can learn if they’re on a family trip. But American families have been raising successful students while taking a family trip during the school year for decades.

Is it really right to interfere with these good families with good students now, all of a sudden? Now? Just because the zeitgeist is pushing in that direction? A direction in which “society” is deemed better at deciding what’s best for an individual child, rather than the parents of that child? Do you really want a state where good parents base their decisions on fear of what the government can do to them and to their children?

Governor, I’m pleading with you to push for common sense in the law, and not leave good Nebraskans at the mercy of lawyers, judges and superintendents. Some of them will exercise common sense, but some won’t.  In a well-ordered free society, people can rely on the law itself to protect their rights; they don’t have to rely on the subjective mercy of legal authorities, which is what you’ve asked Nebraskans to settle for with this law.

Senator Fulton’s bill, LB 1165, amends the truancy law to restore the classic definition of truancy, which is to be “absent without permission.” This would communicate to Nebraska parents that you trust their judgment and common sense at least as much as that of legal authorities. But at the same time, it would allow the education and legal systems to intervene much sooner in the cases of kids who are actually truant.

In short, it would allow the truly helpful aspects of this new law to take effect even sooner in the cases of kids skipping school; it would still improve attendance among those students whose failure in school is almost directly linked to their absences. And it would return legal protection to the students whose parents are always in contact with their schools in regard to their absences, whose children never miss an unexcused day of school in their lives, because their parents are conscientiously involved in what’s going on.

Sen. Fulton’s bill is not a cure-all for parents who want their authority honored by Nebraska law again. It requires parents to be involved in the crafting of attendance policy at their local district level to get what they want.

But it returns state law to a position in which students and their families are protected from government scrutiny when their absences are excused by school authorities. There is no such protection in the law as it currently stands – nor in Senator Ashford’s proposed amendment, LB 933 – as all students come under government scrutiny when they hit 20 days, no matter the reason. Furthermore, all students who’ve missed any school whatsoever are constantly under threat of legal interference, by virtue of the provision which allows a County Attorney to get involved at any point after a child misses one day of school.

In fact, there is a case in which a boy who has missed only two excused days this year (after having a rough year with a lot of absences last year) has been made a state ward. In another case, a girl who missed a lot of school last year – although less than 20 days – when her mother was struggling with brain cancer, has been referred to law enforcement for missing seven excused days this year.

These situations are not consistent with life in a free society. The paradigm shift in the attitude of the state toward parents is deeply troubling.

There are none among us who don’t fully agree that school attendance is important. It is! But we don’t agree with this law, because we don’t agree that government is the best decider of when non-attendance is in the best interest of a child, nor that government is properly used to investigate the families of students whose parents maintain contact with a school in regard to their children’s absences.

There is a scene in Robert Bolt’s classic play, “A Man For All Seasons”, in which Sir Thomas More vigorously explains to his would-be son-in-law, the vital importance of honoring established law in protecting the personal political safety of every individual. It proceeds thus:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

Governor, if we are willing to "cut a great road through the law" – both the natural law and U.S. Constitutional law, which recognize parents as holding a fundamental right to make decisions about the well-being of their children, free from government oversight and investigation – in order to get after “the devil” (bad parents, however that may be defined; and the definition keeps expanding) we will soon find that the social situation for children and families only gets worse.

Governor Heineman, please recognize the great affront which this law is to both natural law and Constitutional law, as well as to common sense. Please study Senator Fulton’s bill, and send a message to Nebraska parents that you trust them, and that you will protect them and their families while working to reduce real truancy, by supporting this bill.


Autumn F. Cook

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