Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Closing the Truancy Loophole

Author: Melanie Williams-Smotherman, Director of Family Advocacy Movement

A report from my observations and recordings of LB996 testimony in the Education Committee of the Nebraska Legislature:

Monday, January 30 - I attended the hearing of the Legislature's Education Committee to testify in opposition to LB996, a bill introduced by Sen. Wightman that would raise the legal age for when teenagers could leave high school with their parents' notarized permission from 16 to 18.

While we know a majority of kids remain in high school, even with the notable failures of our floundering educational system to engage and address special needs (which has only worsened through "No Child Left Behind"), we also know there are many legitimate reasons why a 16 or 17 year old may choose to pursue other avenues of education (like a GED and entering college early) or work (like a specialized trade), according to individual conditions and needs that can only be found outside of the traditional school setting.

The timing of this particular bill (LB996) was not a surprise to those of us who have been working so hard to have Nebraska's new attendance law amended.

The reason it was no surprise is because Sen. Ashford had indicated in a news story that lawmakers would be "closing the loophole" with regard to the possible prosecution of teenagers and their parents for "truancy" and "excessive absenteeism."

It's unfortunate that Sen. Ashford believes that parents exercising their rights and responsibilities to protect their youth and family from undue privacy invasion by state and county officials and potential prosecution by county attorneys and juvenile court judges is a "loophole" that needs to be closed, but apparently he's not alone.

I heard reference to this agenda several times yesterday, all uttered by school administrators, like the superintendent of Lexington Schools, and bureaucrats like Roger Breed, Nebraska Commissioner of Education, who each painted a dire picture of parents as spineless and irresponsible - just waiting to allow the destruction of their own children by signing away their opportunities for a brighter future. They further characterized our kids as would-be delinquents, if it weren't for all of these superintendents, principals, senators and lobbyists, because - according to them in testimony after testimony for this bill - their deep caring about our children is all that is standing in the way between a successful career and life ... and prison.

Instead of recognizing that LB800 and LB463 created a situation that over-reaches, it appears as though some lawmakers are scrambling to "close loopholes" and crudely brick up any possible escape routes.

Ever more responsible youth and their parents could be caught up in yet another over-reaching law through LB996, that is not based on shocking statistics showing the need for it, but which would - nevertheless - deny important flexibility for some to appropriately address their own individual needs.

Of course, another so-called "unintended consequence" of the passing of LB996 would be that the compulsory attendance ages would surpass the age for when it is legal for a youth to enlist in the military with a parent's consent (17) or even marry and begin a family with a parent's consent (17).

Perhaps rolling back those legal rights will be next.

When one of our daughters was younger, she was asked if she knew what a lie was. Her response was, "Yes; If you tell a lie, then you have to tell another lie to cover that lie, and another one to cover that one, and then it gets all confusing."

That's how I see LB996. It's a disingenuous attempt to cover for another bad law. If it passes, then we should expect yet another contrived bill to be pushed in order to cover that bad law, and so forth, until we have so many more "unintended consequences" - all which could have been prevented with a little honesty and common sense, and most importantly, a healthy respect for the rights of parents to act in their own children's best interests.

Senator Ashford introduced the first bill, which addressed creating technical schools (such as Omaha Tech used to be), to provide specialized trade training for kids who may not be college bound.

In his argument for this, he said, "The world is changing and not every kid will follow the same path."

The fact that each person is in individual that cannot be stereotyped or defined by one challenge or situation is, of course, one we agree with. And for this reason, we oppose an attendance law that strips individual parents of their rights to care for their own children by excusing them from school when it is important for the child of that family. And it is also why we oppose LB966, a bill that would "close the loophole" on avoiding prosecution for "excessive absenteeism" (as Sen. Ashford put it) by raising the legal age (from 16 to 18) for when older teens can drop out of school with their parents' permission.

People need to be free to make individual choices that best meet the unique needs of their own families and the children they love and care for. Laws like LB966 characterize everyone who may need to leave school as delinquents headed for a life of failure, and their parents as spineless, irresponsible dolts that would throw away their children's future at the first chance, if it weren't for the interventions of state senators, school administrators, and bureaucrats pushing laws to force everyone to comply with "The Collective."

Sen. Wightman brought and introduced LB966. He made comments about how this law is necessary to prevent parents from just irresponsibly signing their children out of school and condemning them to lives of menial labor or lives of crime.

The room was stacked with white, middle-aged, balding and greying men - all of them school administrators, politicians, and bureaucrats - and each taking their turn at the witness stand to share their utter disdain for the capability of parents, as well as their absolute doubt about the existence of self-motivation in children.

Perhaps most overtly troubling aspect was that NOT ONE member of the Education Committee took public issue with the racist and culturally insensitive comments made by Senator Wightman with regard to the large Hispanic population in his district. As part of his bill's introduction, he spoke at least twice about how he thinks it's a cultural problem.

SEN. WIGHTMAN: "But a lot of it is culture, I think--not all of it, but certainly some of it--in which they don't value an education. And a lot of times that child's not working and I've had some people tell me that they spend most of the extra time when they're out sleeping. [LB996]"

"SENATOR WIGHTMAN: But part of my position is--and you'll hear this from later witnesses--is that parents frequently come in, particularly in a community with a high immigrant population, we'll take them out--maybe January is a common time in the meat packing industry because it's fairly slow--take them out and remove them for three weeks and then frequently the student does not come back..."

The Superintendent of Lexington Public Schools (Todd Chessmore) gleefully reported that he has already turned over several families to the county attorney in his county for "excessive absenteeism" after only THREE DAYS of absence "to prevent getting to that 20-day mark."

He didn't specify whether the absences were due to actual truancy or being sick or for other reasons, but he did drop the fact that he is even referring kids with as few as three "unexcused" absences, "to head off a bigger problem." He said he has a great relationship with the county attorney, who always acts quickly at his request, and that he is able to use the threat of the county attorney to make students and families comply.

He also said he has students as old as 19 and 20 still in high school there, and he has referred them to the county attorney also. (!!!)

I think it's important for us to call and ask him to provide more details, so we can better understand what he means by "unexcused" and what he has actually done with these students. If he is sending students with 3 parent-excused absences (or whatever they may be) to a county attorney, we need to know about that.

He actually asked the rhetorical question: "What gives a parent the right to potentially make a decision that is not in the best interest of the student?"

He also asked why anyone would think that at 17, kids no longer need and education.

When Sen. Cornett openly pondered what benefit there is (and if it's even possible) to force a 17 year old to school when he/she doesn't want to be there, and she asked whether that wouldn't just cause a situation where they won't learn anyway, and where they may actually be disruptive to the learning environment for others, the Lexington superintendent said, "Oh, well we have expulsion policies; If a student is disruptive, we can always expel them for up to a year." (!!!!)

In other words, it's okay for school officials to deny our kids an education without fear of prosecution, but if we parents believe it's in our child's best interest to miss some school, our motives are questioned as though we are known criminals.

This man then appealed to the senators with regard to Nebraska's new "truancy" law, by saying "If I'm going to go to this trouble to prosecute, that will just be a waste of resources when a parent can just come sign them out."

And the hearing was just getting started...

Chad Denker - Seward High School principal and representative of Nebraska Council of School Administrators - said, "We need to get rid of the crutch of allowing parents to sign kids out of school."

He then used the opportunity to take a swing at homeschooling parents by saying that if parents didn't like the rules, they could always "QUOTE" homeschool them." (He made sure to emphasize the "quote," suggesting that parents are not capable of educating their own children).

When Sen. Sullivan asked him, "Why do kids drop out?" his response was, "That's a complicated question. For some families, education isn't a priority."

In other words, he wouldn't even entertain the notion that schools and their curricula may fail to engage students and may not meet their unique needs.

He also said he has "very good luck with the county attorneys."

When Sen. Council asked him whether this was really a huge problem, "How many people are actually signing their kids out to avoid prosecution?" he responded with "I really don't have those figures, because we don't track that."

One of the senators (I think Sen. Avery) asked "Are they (parents and kids) signing out to get out from under county attorneys, or are they cooperating?"

"Cooperating???" With what? Allowing the state to intervene with their families because their children suffer disabilities or illness? It's so frustrating to listen to these lines of reasoning when these people have no apparent sense of what is really happening to law-abiding citizens - their constituents.
PART 4 - Roger Breed, Nebraska's Commissioner of Education since 2009, was up next.

He said the mission of schools today is that ALL STUDENTS be high school graduates and "college ready."

He said this bill would help fulfill the "PS1" (or PS3?) goal of 90% graduation rate.

He tossed out - as a small bone - that it would be good for schools to "try to re-engage students in school," but those meaningless offerings of self-deprecation about how the schools should also do more in helping to keep children better engaged aren't being driven by law or any punitive accountability measures if they don't.

Only kids and parents will be punished for not accepting what is available, and LB996 is one more way in which our lawmakers are threatening to limit even more of our choices in appropriately addressing the needs of our kids.

Senator Ken Haar (not to be confused with Sen. Burke Harr), made a mention to Roger Breed that, "There doesn't seem to be a downside" (to raising the legal drop out rate). Of course, Sen. Haar said this before leaving the hearing room to go do something else, and before any opposition testimony was heard.

That seemed irresponsible, and it concerned me greatly that a representative would suggest that there could be no downside to a bill that restricts the legal choices of constituents.

Jon Habben - Nebraska Commission of Rural Schools Association - was next.

He used some twisted, reverse-psychology **** about how parents may be just waiting until their kids turn 16, so they can (for their own selfish benefit) cut their kids loose from school and no longer be responsible for them. (!!!!)

Sen. Council seemed to latch on to this straw man scenario. She said, "Jon, you drove home a theme. You are talking about parents who might be thinking, 'I can't wait for this kid to be 16, so I can just sign him out of school,' - because that never forces the parent to admit, 'I don't care if my kid drops out or not.'"

??? What? The contrivances in questions and comments were becoming unbearable.

Whenever there seemed to be a hope at a critical question for the assumptions that had to be accepted to follow these people's logic, the testifiers wouldn't really answer them, but used the opportunity as a springboard for 10 more minutes more of false rhetoric.

Not once did ANYONE ask about the responsible parents who actually care deeply about their children (the majority) using the opportunity to sign their 16 or 17 year old out of school for legitimate reasons.

Jon ended his testimony upon this magnanimous soap box: "We should push kids further; We should be doing better for kids."

John Bonito (Registered lobbyist for the Public Schools Governance Board) was next. While he identified himself as a proponent, he actually seemed to give arguments for NOT passing LB996. It was weird.

He said "Maybe we need MORE independent learning ... Maybe some kids won't fit or need the traditional diploma."

He also said, "We may ramp up truancy if we move this (LB996) without protections in place. Not all students fit as a square peg into a round hole."

I was completely confused by his testimony, since he would have done well to give it as an opponent.

Up next for proponents to LB996 was Craig Emmel (Exec. Dir. of Building Bright Futures).

He said, "It's time to 'close the loophole'. We'll join 21 other states with compulsory education until the age of 18."

He said Nebraska would have to "figure out how to handle the GED question" (???), but that in his opinion the GED was inferior to high school. "But that's another topic."

He also threw out the magnanimous (and meaningless) bone: "We need to put more resources into providing different paths and meet high-risk needs."

When asked by Sen. Council if this bill was even necessary, given the lack of knowledge about how many parents actually even know they can sign their kids out at 16 to avoid the truancy courts, Emmel said he didn't know.

But he decided to use a rhetorical tactic by suggesting that it can be used as a way for parents to avoid court. "I don't know; Maybe it's just a handful, or maybe it's 30, 40, or 50 (parents who have used this "loophole")."

30, 40, or 50???? Where did those arbitrary figures come from? How in the world was this not questioned by our lawmakers??

And that's when I stopped taking notes. I think it was time for OPPONENTS of 996, and I was the only one.

I got through my 3 minutes, and I wasn't asked any questions from which I could share more insights. That was it....

It was a very tough day.

Hopefully our spirits can be raised on Friday with a HUGE showing of dedicated people willing to prioritize this the hearing at 1:30. The media, lawmakers, and public will be watching to see if it's just a handful of noisy mothers, or if there really is a significant movement willing to push back against these deep inroads threatening our rights and the well-being of our children.

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