Monday, November 18, 2013

Bribed Into Wellness? Hastings Public Schools Targets Sick Children

Bert Peterson lives in Hastings and is the grandfather of two asthmatic children.  He tells his family's story in this letter to his state senator.
 
(Note:  Bert refers several times to STARS, which stands for Strategic Targeted Attendance Reporting System.  The mission of STARS is:  "To join local school districts, community mental health providers, community agencies, families and courts to address the causes and solutions to fight truancy and excessive absences in order to provide youth with the opportunity to ensure successful education.  Our goal is to help students and families find the support and guidance needed to attend school on a regular basis.")

Dear Senator,

As you are preparing for the January session of the Unicameral I hope you will consider repealing most of 79-209 “Compulsory Attendance; nonattendance etc.”  You in particular with your membership on both the Education and Judiciary Committees can understand that while 79-209 has increased attendance it is hurting many innocent chronically ill children who already have enough on their plates.

The case that brought this to my attention was a grandson who suffers from asthma who ran afoul of the Hasting School Attendance Policy (Hastings Middle School) after 20 missed days last year.  In this case his mother (my daughter) is a teacher in Grand Island and certainly understands and doesn’t condone truancy. 

After receiving a letter from the school about her son’s absences my daughter talked to school officials and to the County Attorney and explained that the absences were due to a chronic illness – asthma.  She was told by the County Attorney that court action would be the result of not attending their silly weekly meetings called STARS.  These weekly meetings required a parent or family member to be present which means taking off time from work for the parent and loss of income.  Her husband was told the same thing by the County Attorney on a second occasion when he protested about losing time from work and the cost to the family for what is a chronic illness.

I attended only one such meeting, in lieu of the parent, and it was an absolute waste of time.  The worse part of the meeting was that my grandson was told to pick out a present from a bowl since he hadn’t been absent for a month.  He declined and was upset by their juvenile attempt at bribery!  A bribe to cure a chronic illness?  If that works they need to go to the FDA and see if they can get approval of their new treatment for asthma!

Sitting next to us, while we each waited our turn to go into the STARS meeting, was a student (who had obvious serious physical problems that would be expected to cause him to miss a good deal of school).  My daughter asked one of the Middle School STARS officials why such a child was in STARS.  This child obviously had enough on his plate without these meetings.  This STARS official gave a good deal of information about this child that was presumably protected information under their STARS program and certainly protected by HIPAA.

My daughter was caught off guard by the reaction of the school and the County Attorney last year.  That won’t be the case this year.  That grandson is now an honor role student in Hastings High School and a second grandson (also with asthma) is in the Middle School.  Should this come up again we will refuse to participate in their STARS program and will be very happy to see them in court should the County Attorney push it and will counter sue.  Secondly we will home school.  I’m still more than qualified to teach middle school, or high school.

From an Education Committee perspective It is important to understand that while attendance is up in Hastings, this is a meaningless statistic unless they can show causation.  In fact the evidence in the research is at least as strong that:
  • Truancy is caused by poor performance, as is the evidence that
  • Poor performance is caused by truancy

This is an education issue and the County Attorney has no place in it, until the school determines that a child is a habitual truant. 

From the perspective of the Judiciary Committee 79-209 violates the most fundamental cannons of our legal system in that it punishes the innocent along with the guilty.  From:
  • the Bible at Genesis chapters 18 and 19 where Abraham says to God’s angels “Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked” referring to Sodom and Gomorrah and God relented allowing Lot and his family to leave
  • to Torah scholar Rabbi Moses Maimonides in the 12th century who asserted the Torah requires absolute certainty of guilt referencing the above and also Exodus 23:7
  • to British jurist William Blackstone in the 18th century: "All presumptive evidence of felony should be admitted cautiously; for the law holds it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer"
  • to Ben Franklin who quotes justice Blackstone but increases his 10 to 100 guilty going free
  • to John Adams  who shows the same sentiment as justice Blackstone while defending the British soldiers that caused the Boston Massacre.

The presumption of habitual truancy for children with chronic illnesses is against every principle that our system of fairness and justice was founded on.

Please help get the legal system off the backs of innocent chronically ill children by repealing most of 79-209.



A Brief Guide to "Truancy" Charges and Legal Representation

***Members of the Nebraska Family Forum are not attorneys and do not give legal advice.  Any advice given by the NFF is based on the experience of our members and what we have witnessed in the court system.***

What should you do if your child is referred to the county attorney for absences?

* If your child is referred to the county attorney, we recommend that you contact the Nebraska Family Forum immediately via e-mail (NebraskaFamilyForum@gmail.com), Facebook (Nebraska Family Policy Forum) or the website (NebraskaFamilyForum.org).  Provide your name and phone number and a representative of the NFF will contact you to confidentially gather information about your family's unique circumstances, and discuss with you possible options.

* The NFF recommends that you never appear in court or at a meeting with prosecutors without an attorney accompanying you.

* We recommend that you hire a private attorney if at all possible, even if that means calling on all your personal and family resources.  In our experience, we have learned that a private attorney is the best way to prevent you and your child from being unjustly treated in juvenile court.  If you retain an attorney at the beginning of the process, it is possible that it will not take much of his or her professional time to get the issue resolved, which could save you time, money, and stress.  Hiring a private attorney may be the best investment you ever make.  The NFF can provide you with referrals to attorneys who are familiar with the "excessive absenteeism" law.

* If it is impossible to hire a private attorney, you may request a public defender be assigned to your family.

* We strongly recommend that you refrain from making any statements to your school, to a county attorney, to DHHS, to a guardian ad litem, or to any member of the county's truancy diversion team or the GOALS team without an attorney representing you.  The NFF can provide you with "reverse Miranda" cards to use in case an attempt is made to question your child outside of your presence.

* If you are in a position where you must speak to any official without an attorney present, RECORD YOUR CONVERSATION.  This is legal in Nebraska, unless you are in a courtroom.

Please feel free to contact the Nebraska Family Forum with any other questions regarding "truancy" charges and legal representation.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Someone Else Will Do It



Someone Else Will Do It:  When Fear Stops You
by Gina Miller

When I received the first letter stating that my child had missed a certain number of days of school, and my school district was required by law to inform me that if she missed any more school they would be referring her to the County Attorney, my sense of injustice went right through the roof.   I immediately started working to find out who I could partner with to figure out how something so sacred as the relationship between myself and my child’s school could be turned into threats and intimidation, into bullying of my child by school personnel, with innuendo and public conversations about her attendance in front of her friends.  

I have been in this fight for three years.  I have worked with amazing, passionate people who have put their lives on hold to fight for my child and all of yours.  I have had the opportunity to meet with principals, superintendents, school boards, legislators, county boards, county attorneys, and pretty much anyone else who would listen.

I feel that I have been pretty effective getting our message out and connecting with decision and policy makers.   Through all of my efforts it was not until just recently that I disclosed that I had a child that was affected by the law.  Most of my friends thought this was just one of my “causes” that I was working on.  

Why did I not disclose that my child was targeted, that I feel that my family has been injured and harassed?

I have struggled with this question for quite some time.  Even after I told people that my daughter was in jeopardy of being referred to law enforcement, when I was asked to say something publically about it, I became paralyzed!   What was that?  I have fought to change this law for three years.  I knew that the one thing policy makers were impacted by were family stories!   I have privately told people my personal story, so what was stopping me from going public with our story?

THE DOUBTS, THE FEAR, THE INTIMIDATION….yep, that was it.  What would other people say?   WHAT IF “they” were right and my child really wasn’t sick and just “wanted to stay home.”   WHAT IF my child received further harassment from the school because of me going public with our story?  WHAT IF, since we were into year three of this harassment, they decided to use the clause in the law that said you can refer at any time if the child has previously gone over 20 days?    What if, what if, what if……. 

I knew we had “other family stories” and that they had been effective.  What I didn’t know is that once the policy makers hear a story, they are done with it.  They don’t want to hear about it again.  They assume these are “one off” situations, that there is a simple explanation for that one case and they move on.  Once we started getting families who would agree to tell their story publically and we were able to piece together a “quilt” of stories across districts, across counties, across the state, THEN PEOPLE STARTED LISTENING.

This is what we need:  We need PEOPLE, we need FAMILIES who can personally recount their experiences with this law.  We need them to stand up, to be heard, to engage, to let policy makers hear their story.  It doesn’t have to be pretty, it doesn’t have to be perfect, and it doesn’t have to be detailed.  Just SHOW up.  Just start.  Just come together with other families who are experiencing the same thing.  You ARE NOT ALONE!  There IS POWER in numbers!  

What I discovered once I received a “little push” to go public is that I WAS FREE!   I was free to tell my story!  I received support, not judgment! I was free to go past the typical chain of command to get to the decision makers to CHANGE my situation!  I was free to GET THINGS DONE!  That is all I have wanted for three years!  For three years I have felt like I have been screaming in the dark, fighting an unwinnable battle.  But since there were brave families willing to go public I can now say that we are within inches of getting this law repealed.

We CAN NOT STOP right before the finish line!  We NEED NEW STORIES, WE NEED MORE FAMILIES, and WE NEED YOU!!!!  

Please join me in setting us ALL FREE!  


Posted by OPS parent Gina Miller, 11/13/13

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Russell Family: Parents can no longer parent their children

 
My daughter is a first grader in Omaha Public Schools.  She missed several days in a row.  I took her to the emergency room. She was diagnosed with the croup virus. This caused high fevers, sore throat, runny and plugged up nose. She would cough so hard she would vomit.  We had a very sick little girl.  If I have to rush her to the hospital, obviously it isn't a little cold.
Even though I had a doctor's note, the school sent a letter home with my daughter about her attendance. They wonder why parents take offense to this as I know when my daughter is sick. We also have to weigh out if there is a chance they can be sent home by the nurse, which also causes a problem.  I work in Papillion.  I can't just get off work any time I choose.
I can't help but feel angry when I received this letter.  Parents can no longer parent their children without everyone else involved.  So when she is sick again and has to go to the hospital at 6:30 am, I think I need to get ahold of the principal to go with me, then she needs to come to my house on Monday to decide if my daughter is well enough to go to school because obviously they think as parents we can't make the right decisions.
Normally with a virus they don't give medicine but she was given a medicine to drink which was a steroid.  I emailed the principal to tell her the days should have been excused.  Boy do I feel like I have no control of my own child.  I expect child support if she has another parent involved in decisions made for her.  I am sorry, but I am tempted to mail the letter back to her.  I am VERY MAD.
 
Tammy Russell, Omaha Public Schools

Friday, November 8, 2013

Repeal the Excessive Absenteeism Law





The Nebraska Family Forum is asking the Nebraska legislature to do the following during the 2014 session:



REPEAL the current law


REPLACE it with a law that addresses real truancy, defined as being absent without the knowledge or permission of a parent or guardian



REMOVE law enforcement from the process



RESTORE a cooperative relationship between schools, parents, and students—the three parties that should be dealing with attendance issues


Please remember that these are our goals when you are speaking with friends, parents, state senators, and other public officials.





Friday, November 1, 2013

Congrats to all in and working with the NFF who struggled so mightily to win some awareness on the evil being done by the excessive absenteeism law. I so appreciate everyone who has the courage to step forward and speak, and to bare the pain of reliving these horrific stories to help others understand the harm being done to our families in Nebraska. There was good media coverage recently, and if you want, you can read (and forward on) the story at http://kios.org/post/group-calls-repeal-nebraskas-truancy-law.

I would like to point out, however, Senator Ashford's response in this news piece: State Senator Brad Ashford sponsored the original truancy law and two amendments to it. He says there won't be changes to the law. "We are not going to repeal the law. The law has had a dramatically positive impact on young people throughout the state, in counties throughout the state. There are diversion programs in Hall County, Adams County, in Wahoo, Douglas County, in Sarpy County. There is a new awareness by school districts that there is a place to go if they can’t find a child."

What place is that, I wonder? Jail? The courthouse? I would like to know exactly what kind of law it is that stands against the will of the people. Or, could it just be that we have not protested enough? Made enough taxpayers aware of where their education dollars are being spent? Raised enough awareness? So please, keep the pressure on. Keep writing those letters and posting those stories. It's clear we still have a way to go to get this disgusting law repealed.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Shiech Family: "Terrified they would take my child, they stole my final goodbye"



Mary Ann Shiech lives in the Lincoln Public School District and is the single mom of three sons.  Mary Ann suffers from a serious immune deficiency illness, which is exacerbated by stress, and leaves her unable to work outside the home.  In spite of that, she is a college-educated community activist who doesn’t hesitate to devote her time and talents to speaking out against injustice.  Mary Ann bravely shares the story of her ordeal with Lincoln Public Schools, which turned her non-truant child into the county attorney, not just once, but three years in a row.  Each year, Mary Ann was prosecuted by the Lancaster County Attorney and had to retain legal counsel.  As is common with the Lancaster County Attorney’s office, each of the unfounded cases were dragged out until the last minute and then dropped right before trial.  The stress on Mary Ann’s family and the toll on her health have been enormous.  Here is her story.

The first of three truancy charges came after my son Jeramiah’s last year of elementary school  had already ended.  Jeramiah was attending Everett Elementary and had been the victim of bullying for years. The abuse came to a head when he was stabbed in the back with a pencil by the same child who had been constantly bullying him for years. The school did not even call me to inform me of the incident.  Since Jeramiah had been victimized for two years and the school had made zero progress in dealing with the issue, I took him to the police station, had his wound photographed, and filed charges.  I then called Lincoln Public Schools administration, told them about the incident, and informed them that as a parent, I could not send my son to school unless they could guarantee he would be safe. I checked in with administration and the school daily while my son kept up with his school work at home. They refused to remove the other child from the classroom or offer any action that would assure me the situation was being taken seriously or that any changes would be made.

When I realized that Everett Elementary was not going to resolve the problem, I put Jeramiah into McPhee Elementary, where he finished the year with no issues. After the school year had ended, I discovered that the school had turned me in to the county attorney and the county attorney had filed truancy charges.

That first time, it wasn't required that I bring Jeramiah for an initial appearance; our attorney took care of that.  After a proper investigation, charges were dropped, as it was found I was acting in my child's best interest and the school was not.  My question is, why isn’t an investigation done before charges are filed?  Isn’t that how it’s done with all other crimes?  There was no reason to ever bring my family into court.

The next year, my son began having stomach aches and missing school. This culminated in him being admitted to Bryan Hospital. He had enlarged lymph nodes in his mesenteric pouch, in the bowels, and they were literally "twisting" his bowels. He was hospitalized and given morphine to manage the excruciating pain.
Due to his absences because of this illness, the school turned me in to the county attorney before Jeramiah had even missed 20 days, and the county attorney filed truancy charges before he had missed 20 days.

I was horrified that, this time, I had to bring my son in for the judge to terrorize him by saying that he might be removed from his home until he was 19 years old.  Jeramiah was scared to death and didn’t understand why he might be taken from his mother because he was sick!  We were assigned a lawyer at the initial appearance, but when we didn’t give in to the pressure to “volunteer" for the truancy diversion program, I was told he could not represent me.  We didn’t “volunteer” because why should my son have to go to diversion when he was sick?  What was he supposed to be diverted from?  So we got another lawyer, the county attorney held on to the case for a long time, and shortly before trial, the case was dropped because all of his absences were due to illness and all the documentation was there.  Everyone knew from the very beginning of this process why he was absent, and everyone had the documentation from day one, so why was he ever turned in and why were charges filed?

This last year, charges were again filed before Jeramiah missed 20 days, I believe "in anticipation" he would miss the required amount of days necessary to substantiate the charges. That year, Jeramiah missed a week of school due to Strep A infection, which was first thought to be a West Nile infection. He was sent home to recuperate, then the second Strep test came back positive and he could not go to school until he had been on antibiotics for a certain amount of time.

Also that spring, my mother, Jeramiah’s grandmother, passed away. We took a week off of school to spend with her, to be with her as she passed. Once again, charges had already been filed before he had missed 20 days, and due to this I did not even attend my own mother’s funeral.  Terrified they would take my child, they stole my final goodbye.

Many of the absences reported to the county attorney were for just one class or a partial class. When I reviewed the attendance records, I found that in those instances he was in school, just in another place with the teacher’s permission. The incompetence of those keeping record of attendance is unbelievable and the result is that innocent children end up in court.  After dragging the case out for months and getting another attorney, the unfounded charges were once again dropped.

This invasive law and Lancaster County’s “truancy program" take away a parent’s natural right to decide what is best for their child.  I wanted to be there when my mother was buried, but fear of losing my child into the system kept me from taking him out of school any longer.

Personally, I feel that because I would not "comply" with what I believe is a cash for kids program, initiated at Park Middle School, I then became a target for harassment. My parenting choices were being questioned at every turn.  He was bullied, he was sick, and his grandmother died.  I made the right decisions for him every step of the way, like good parents do.  My kid doesn’t need a psychologist or a social worker and I don’t need a parenting class.  I’m a good parent and my child doesn’t have mental health issues, so stop trying to pull us into the “system.”

Now that the school district has figured out they’re not going to get me for "truancy," they have begun digging into other areas of my life.  This is all part of the bigger picture created by this law, which gives more authority over our children to strangers such as school employees and county attorneys, than to their own parents who love them and know them best.

Lincoln Public Schools and Lancaster County are misusing this law to abuse innocent families and sick children.  This has been very damaging and detrimental to my health.  We have been hurt badly by this law, and we believe it needs to be changed.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

October 29th Press Conference a Success

Yesterday's press conference was certainly a success. All of the Omaha television stations were represented, as well as the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln's Channel 8, the Daily Record, and U.N.O.'s KVNO Radio.

The members of the press were attentive and responsive as each family told their story. After the speakers concluded, there were many questions from the press. They were interested, and that was apparent.

Thank you to the brave people who told their stories publicly: Michelle Garrity, Antony Ward, Vaughn Crowell, and Gina Miller. Much thanks to Willie Hamilton of Black Men United for sharing his concerns about this law's effect on the African-American community. Representatives of The Heartland Workers Center could not attend, but they sent a statement expressing their concerns about the disproportionate effect the law is having on the Latino community.

And last but certainly not least, Mary Ann Borgeson, chair of the Douglas County Board. Mary Ann called this press conference and relayed families' concerns beautifully. Mary Ann speaks from her heart about the law's effects on the people of Nebraska, while Brad Ashford talks about the law's effects on numbers. Our children are not numbers or statistics or test scores or dollar signs, they are our precious children. Thank you, Mary Ann, for always remembering that, and for being a tireless champion for them. They are why we fight.

Comments to the Press by Brenda Vosik, Director of the NFF



Brenda Vosik's Comments to the Press
October 29, 2013

My name is Brenda Vosik and I am the director of the Nebraska Family Forum.    The NFF was founded about 2 ½ years ago to address the harmful effects of LB 800, the “excessive absenteeism” law passed by our legislature in 2010.  From its humble beginnings of two concerned moms, our group has grown to over 600 members and it continues to grow every week, as more and more Nebraska families are harmed by this law.

A little background on the law:  During the 2010 legislative session, Sen. Brad Ashford declared that Nebraska had a truancy crisis.  In the packet which will be given to you by Commissioner Borgeson at the conclusion of this press conference, you will find attendance statistics for the last 15 years, provided by our State Board of Education.  You will see that since 1998, daily average attendance rates have been stable in our state, ranging from 94.6% to 95.55%, less than one percentage point difference throughout those 15 years.  Pay particular attention to the school year 2009-2010, when the average daily attendance rate was 94.7%, not the highest rate in the 15 years shown, nor the lowest.

However, that was the year that Sen. Ashford suddenly and inexplicably declared that Nebraska had a “truancy crisis” and was able to pass the law making 20 days of absence, for any reason, a crime.  Not only was there never a truancy crisis – or even an attendance crisis – this law that was presented and passed under the guise of preventing truancy does not even contain the word “truancy” in its verbiage – only excessive absenteeism.  Even worse, the effect the law is having on children who are really skipping school is not even being measured.  The data that is being collected makes no distinction between kids who are skipping school and kids who are absent with legitimate reason; only absences are being measured but those numbers are presented as truancy data.  Those are certainly the numbers that will be given to you, the press, in defense of this law.  I urge you to look at them carefully and see them for what they are—and what they aren’t.  You see, proponents of the law play fast and loose with the word “truancy,” using it interchangeably with the word “absenteeism,” but we all know those are two very different things.  So here we are, three years and millions of dollars later, thousands of children dragged into the juvenile justice system, and we have no idea if the kids who truly need help are being helped.

What we do know is that this law has cast a wide net over all Nebraska families and transferred day-to-day authority over our children, from parents to law enforcement.  What we do know is that many, many families have been harmed, and we have been collecting their stories for almost three years.  Today, several of those families are sitting here behind me, prepared to speak to you.  Other families from across the state could not be here today, and some of their stories are included in your packet.  I also encourage you to look at our blog, NebraskaFamilyForum.org.  There you will read about children with meningitis, mono, asthma, autism and other physical and mental illnesses being treated like criminals and forced to accept diversion under threat of being taken from their parents.  You will read about a 12-year-old child with doctors’ notes for every day missed being served a summons by the sheriff, accusing him of being a danger to the morals of himself and others.  You will read of sick children being Mirandized like common criminals, you will read about a sick little girl crying to her mother, “What did I do wrong?”  Even after last year’s compromise amendment, the stories continue.  Thousands of innocent children are still being referred to law enforcement and are still being caught up in the juvenile justice system statewide, because the amended law allows it.

Over the past three years, Douglas County and the Learning Community have created an “attendance industry” consisting of attendance officers, Student Personnel Assistants, county attorneys, social workers, and other enforcers of the absenteeism law.  It’s a booming business, folks.  More than $1,000,000, and counting, has been funneled away from educating our kids to punishing our kids.  This money could have been used to provide services to families who really have at risk kids, who are perhaps struggling with actual truancy issues, or other circumstances that sometimes make it difficult for good parents to get their children to school.

The NFF has been immersed in this issue for more than two years, and we believe this law is fatally flawed.  We cannot “amend” our way out of this mess.  The law needs to be repealed and we need to start over with a new law that is really about truancy, that is really about helping and motivating kids to stay in school, without the constant threat of being taken away from their parents. 

Today we are advocating for four things:
1)      REPEAL of the current law;
2)      REPLACEMENT with a law that addresses real truancy, defined as being absent without the permission or knowledge of your parent;
3)      REMOVING law enforcement from the equation;
4)      and RESTORING a cooperative relationship between schools, parents and students—the three parties who should be dealing with attendance issues.