Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Testimony before the Judiciary Committee 2/13/12

My name is Brenda Vosik. I live at 1422 So. 158th Circle in Omaha, in the Millard School District. I am speaking in opposition to LB917, which amends LB800 by carving out special protections for only two groups.

Nebraska’s excessive absenteeism law needs to be changed, and quickly, as many innocent, non-truant, children are suffering under it. However, LB 917 does not provide the protections these innocent children need while still pursuing students who are really truant, which means “absent without permission.” While protecting children with serious documented illnesses and those visiting with a parent returning from deployment is a laudable goal, it doesn’t prevent many other non-truant students from falling into the clutches of law enforcement unnecessarily.

It seems that what parents know for a fact – but public officials are choosing to ignore – is that there are many legitimate reasons to be absent from school. Children in our state who are absent for good reasons, with their parents’ permission, are regarded as truants under our current law and would still be targeted under LB917. Here are a few real-life examples from Nebraska families.

Students attending funerals are not protected under our current law or under this amendment, LB917. Many of you may remember the tragic automobile accident that killed an Omaha South High School teacher in November 2010. After his wife’s death and funeral, the teacher’s widower received a letter warning that his eighth grade daughter was excessively absent and threatening action by the County Attorney. Those days missed for her mother’s funeral were counted towards this child’s “truancy tally.” I think we can all agree that is terribly wrong. Under our current law, this child was not protected from legal action for attending her own mother’s funeral, and she wouldn’t be protected under LB917.

A group of talented young Omaha dancers was selected to perform in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was on the front page of the Omaha World-Herald. They had to miss three days of school to participate—three days that count toward their “truancy tally.” These girls were clearly not truant but were treated as such under our current law. LB917 would not change that. Nebraska Education Commissioner Roger Breed, speaking to this very committee in December, stated that students like these young ladies, students who aspire to high-level athletics or other exceptional achievements, cause a “resource issue” for our schools; in other words, their success is a problem rather than a source of pride for our state. I’m afraid we won’t need to worry about this “problem” for long. It will eventually solve itself as our highest-achieving students and athletes move to other states that treat them with respect instead of as truants.

An honors student from Lincoln High School responded to the earthquake in Haiti by attending a weeklong national youth service trip to help build sustainable housing for 40 displaced Haitian families. This young lady is not running around committing crimes, doomed to a life of failure because she was absent for a week. In fact, she is here today and she is still an honors student with a 3.82 GPA and 12th in her class of 357. This is another of Nebraska’s “resource problems” who, according to our law, should have been seated at her school desk instead of helping her fellow human beings that week. Something tells me our Creator would disagree with that position. This young lady is clearly not truant, but is regarded as such under our current law. LB917 would not change that.

A young man earned a perfect 36 on his ACT. He took two days off of school to visit an Ivy League college. Based on our current law, there is no excuse for that and those two days count toward his “truancy tally”. What is this telling our highest achieving students? Perhaps the message is that Nebraska students can now only aspire to their local community college, under threat of legal action. Is that really the message we want to send? This young man was clearly not truant, but is regarded as such under our current law. LB917 would not change that.

Every day, hundreds of students across Nebraska have bad colds or flu, they run low grade fevers, they are vomiting. Per school policy and common sense, they are supposed to stay home; many are even sent home by the school nurse. Isn’t it ironic that even when children are sent home by the school nurse with minor ailments such as colds and flu, fevers, rashes, head lice and pink eye, their absences are counted toward their “truancy tally”? Actually, it’s more than ironic, it’s ridiculous, it’s appalling, and I would find it hard to believe if it wasn’t happening every day to people I personally know. Many parents, including me, are now sending their children to school with these ailments, against their better judgment, against the advice of their family doctors, and contrary to the pleadings of school nurses. In some of the Millard Public Schools, small children who go to the school nurse complaining of illness are told how many days they’ve missed, and are pressured to “tough it out” and stay at school. At Beadle Middle School, a young lady was kept at school in spite of the nurse finding lice on her head, although her sister was sent home because of the same issue. Why? This girl had pneumonia the week before and the school wouldn’t allow her to miss any more days because of the truancy law. She was told to go back to class and not touch anyone. As a parent of a public school child, this is not o.k. with me and I’m sure it wasn’t o.k. with the dozens of other parents whose children were exposed to those lice—all because of our ridiculous truancy law. It’s frightening that until children with these minor illnesses are protected from legal action, parents will continue to send them to school, putting their own health and the public health in jeopardy. These children are clearly not truant, but our law treats them as such. Amendment 917 does not change this.

Our one-size-fits-all definition of truancy substitutes the irrational judgment of the state in place of the common sense of the parent. Since when is the state a better parent than I am? What arrogance for the state to tell me, and my family’s doctor, when it’s best for my child to stay home.

Although the new excessive absenteeism law desperately needs to be changed, LB 917 is not the way to do it. Instead of casting a wide net over every family in Nebraska and then carving out tiny little exceptions, let’s fix the entire law and fix it right by returning to the true definition of truancy: absent without permission.

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