Friday, August 16, 2013

Letter to Gov. Heineman and Sen. Ashford from Ann Summers

LETTER FROM NFF MEMBER ANN SUMMERS

SENT TO:  Gov. Dave Heineman, Brad Ashford, and Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Mark Evans

The policies governing truancy in Nebraska must be changed. How long will you, our elected officials, allow policies to excuse those who abuse your people? Is there no limit to the confusion and pain this law can cause? Does the the accumulation of cases in our county attorneys’ offices mean nothing to you, nothing also our taxpayer money flowing into a burgeoning number of cases, nothing our families’ struggles to educate their sick children, nothing our people’s dislike of big government, nothing the disproportionate ill-treatment of those with little financial resources, nothing the pleading of those you claim to protect here in Nebraska?

Education policies may govern or punish. All evidence gathered by the Nebraska Family Forum http://www.nebraskafamilyforum.org/ shows that these so-called truancy policies are resulting in punishment and worse, gross miscarriages of justice and flagrant over-reaching actions by school administrators and county attorneys and court appointed officials. It is being used to punish those who follow the rule of sending their children to school, as stated in statute 79-201: “each day that such school is open and in session, except when excused by school authorities or when illness or severe weather conditions make attendance impossible or impracticable.” Amendments have capped absent-limits, and gone on to require school districts to have a policy in place to deal with “excessive absenteeism” and yet, there is confusion and misapplication. I believe “turn em in and let the courts sort em out” is an unwritten policy, and when cases are given scrutiny and the light of day, it often seems that the only thing made clear is a great deal of finger-pointing.

In that travesty of “fixing” turning sick children into criminals, known as LB933, nothing has been fixed, and nothing made clear. Why are charges of criminal truancy still being leveled against excused absentees? My heart bursts each time I read one of these cases of sick children, desperate parents, and uninformed, if not disingenuous civil advocates. So I ask you gentlemen: as public servants, elected to serve the people, how long will you allow them to be punished and harassed for perfectly normal behavior? The whole policy needs to be reworked from the beginning.

Not only is this problem worse and bigger than lawmakers and enforcers are ready to admit, but you, its supporters, are missing a golden opportunity to do something real and meaningful for education policy in Nebraska. Instead of making enemies of your constituents and their children, you could offer actual solutions. Instead of pouring money into county services and diversionary tactics after the fact, you could offer help to families before their situation  becomes critical. I am sure there are many things I don’t understand about the cash flow and the restrictions on how money is directed into these programs, but ask yourself this: which is cheaper in health care, health maintenance or triage and hospitalization?
 
We are using triage in education to fix problems (heck, the GOALS memo even calls it triage) that could be managed much more cheaply. As a result we have poor attendance, poor performance, and underfunded districts. The “patient” is in constant crisis, and still, with all the dollars we throw at education, the National Council of Governors for major US cities claims that even if all the people in their workforce were offered a job, they would not have the education or skills to fill it. Statistics indicated that we stink at math and science, and it’s only getting worse. In Nebraska, our standards (as compared nationally and world-wide) produce “great results” because our expectations are so miserably low. So how is all this money helping? It helps keep kids in school, but does it educate anyone? And, oh, we are talking about a lot of money.... As you are reading the story below, collected recently by NNF members, try a simple exercise: try to keep a running total of all the billable hours of all the officials who appear in this one story out of thousands, and weigh that against the time, trouble, and heartache yet another family has gone through. Imagine what we could do if we used that cash to help kids learn.


 It should be understood, gentlemen, that I exempted my own children, with many a tear and prayer, from the public school system, and I now instruct them myself. I use the local homeschooling communities, the public library, some homeschool materials and the internet, the great democratizer, to help my children learn. As a result, I set my own schedule, they read and learn whether they are sick or well, and they study Latin and Greek and English grammar and math all summer. I am not rich nor am I particularly brilliant. With the support and help of many faith-based groups who laid the way plain for me, I have met home educators and families whose tales are now documented on the NFF, who attempted to make school systems work for them—overall a vast and diverse group of people. And I have found a very curious thing. I find consensus among people where you would never expect to see it. I see ultra-conservatives, religious folks, libertarians, right-wingers and left-wingers, atheists, traditionalists, and progressives all nodding their heads and agreeing that our school system here in NE is just one more example of big government gone completely out of control. Perhaps this has something to do with Senator Ashford’s unsuccessful mayoral bid. If you don’t understand how messed up things still are, listen to this report of diversion court by a conscientious observer:


My advice is that you, Senator Ashford and you, Governor Heinemen, work with our legislators and appoint a multi-disciplinary education task force and begin to explore the possibilities of using technology to fill the people resource gap and to better track what children are learning and find new ways to help them learn so they can win in life. How much more useful this would be than recording minutes their bottoms were in a certain GPS location and prosecuting those who have trouble keeping them there. Perhaps if we give people who are struggling some options, not just punishment, some understanding, not just enforcement, it will help Nebraskan children and families be proud of their education system and have them fighting to get in instead of fighting against it. And you know what, gentlemen? You could both be heroes, because instead of riding the downward curve like Detroit and its ilk, and watching as the learning and family life is legislated out of every classroom in the country, you could make the first real effort to fix public education. You could be the guys who took a suffering state full of underachievers and turned it into another Vermont, at the top of the list. I know a lot of folks who would vote for those guys.  

Thank you, 
Ann R. B. Summers
Omaha, NE



Saturday, August 3, 2013

Another NFF member observes Douglas County "truancy" court



On Monday, July 29, NFF member Stacy Ryan observed “truancy” court at the Douglas County Courthouse.  Stacy has a law degree, but attended merely as a concerned parent and citizen of our county.  These are her observations, comments, and opinions, in her own words:

“I attended the truancy "party" on Monday.  I say party because the number of times they said "We invited you,” was about five.  They "invited" these families to this meeting; if you are a radar kid they might "invite" you to come back and talk to the county attorney.   They also started the program by saying "Thank you for coming.”  Comments like this infer that attendance was voluntary and they are there for a casual meeting and sincerely offering help."

My Observations:
At least 100 people in that room. Standing room only by about 3:35 PM.
I found it curious that there were no teachers/principals or representatives from the schools present. If you get a speeding ticket and the cops don't show you can have your ticket dismissed.  The state needs a witness. Apparently if they "invited" you to this you are de facto "guilty"?   
After they explained that if you are a radar kid or a kid who needs diversion they added that, "We have not looked at all your files. We don't know your story."  If they don't know your story how did they decide between labeling you a radar kid or a diversion kid? 
The woman in charge explained that the people present might wonder why they were there because it’s summer.  She explained that they have a "backlog" of cases and this was the first opportunity to "invite" them all there. 
She explained that rather than filing a court case they "investigate" and decide whether to file.   I'd like to know what their "investigation" entails since they admit they do not know everybody's story.  HOW did they decide who to keep there?
She claimed diversion is voluntary. But they might feel the need to take it to court so it was to the families’ benefit to tell their story to them. 
I was shocked that it was announced that someone from probation was present to do urine analyses on children.  If a parent wanted to take advantage of that "we can set that up for you."  Are they offering to put your kid on probation??
Following is a list of different “service providers” present and what they offer:  Career counseling, mentoring, college credit, provide an advocate, tutoring, "help" for those struggling in school, they will identify the "barriers" to consistent attendance, therapy, they will meet at their homes or schools, behavioral issues, help and support for "anything".  By the way what does this cost and who's paying?
After the speeches from the providers, the radar kids could leave.  About 35 names were called off and they all headed for the door. I saw maybe two families go back to talk to the providers. Most people wanted the heck out of there. 
There was a family near the back with about five little kids.  I sat in back closer to this family and there was another family (two parents and a boy around age 11) in the very back a few seats from the woman with the kids. Grandma and Mom were trying to deal with a crying toddler and the other kids. The man with the 11-year-old at one point leaned over and said very loudly to the struggling Grandma and Mom:   "Shut the ****ing kid up!"  (this same family was let go and as he passed me he said loudly "Let’s get the **** out of here.”    
About 5-10 minutes later Deputy County Attorney Jordan Boler came to the Mom and Grandma (instead of calling them up front) and said she'd get them out of there because "You have your hands full."  Since they were really close to me, I could hear what Boler was telling them.  Boler made her pitch offering services and got out the two-part form I saw they used with everybody.  She wanted a good phone number for them, she wanted their agreement, she wanted to set up a future appointment.  She offered that "They can come to your house.”  Mom went along with it all. It appeared that the oldest child who looked to be about 7-8 was the diversion kid (she had pretty small children, I thought the MOM might have been the student).  At one point Boler looked at the 8-year-old diversion boy and said, "You are struggling? I know…we'll get you out of here."

A boy about 16 went up with his Mom.  They were Hispanic, there was an interpreter nearby and Boler talked to them too. The boy at one point expressed he didn't want their services. Boler was repeating what he said. "What happens if you refuse?"  She explained that they would then have to decide whether to take it to court.  The kid didn't want to agree and then Boler suggested that he could go sit down and "think about it.”

It actually took me about three cases to understand that the kids who had to stay were right then and there agreeing to diversion and services.  In the beginning it sounds like they are there to "help" them so it is not real clear that "help" means you agree to services which means you agree to be put on diversion.   I do not think the parents understand what they are getting into when they sign those forms put under their noses.  

The last couple I watched sat in front of me. Very quiet, very respectful. When they were called up, they listened intently to the prosecutor (a blonde girl named Cara).  The couple had a girl who was about eleven years old.  Dad talked intently to Cara after Cara went thru her schpeel.  I can't say for sure but it appeared he said something about wanting to handle their child themselves as far as services. They did not sign anything. After a long speech by Cara and the dad talking, the mom asked, "What happens next?" and Cara mentioned court in a long, roundabout way.  It appears to me they don't want to be direct with these parents maybe because face-to-face confrontation isn't anyone's idea of fun.  But when they present their services and form to the parents they ought to be required not to sugar coat it so the parents "get" that they are letting the government into their lives when they sign that form.

After observing “truancy” court, several things bothered me:

-          Cattle call forum. But, if you complain that this should be private what will they say/do to these families and no one can watch?
-          HIPAA issues.  It’s nobody's business if you do want services for your kid.  People telling their story in a loud room with three other prosecutors talking to others, interpreters repeating everything and chit chat going on the whole time. If you want to you can listen though.  These parents are forced to talk to these prosecutors with their child in front of a bunch of other people. Having to explain asthma or ADHD or any medical issue shouldn't be done in this forum.  A young kid can feel badly that their medical or mental issue is getting Mom and Dad in trouble.  In my opinion, those issues are none of the court’s business.

-          No school reps there to provide support to the claim that each kid missed 20 or more days of school. 

-          Time it took to do this.  Why are they wasting the time of the families of the 40 kids they labeled radar kids, and making them come down there only to let them go after they are forced to listen to these providers?  It’s got to cost them something too...I couldn't get a parking spot because of all the construction, not the easiest place to get into.  So you either plug a meter and hope this doesn't take more than 2 hours or pay to park across the street.  People likely took off work as well. 

-          No lawyer present for the families so that they could understand what they were signing (double edge sword there).  A lawyer isn't necessarily a good thing but it’s clear to me the parents don't know their rights, they are led to believe this is "voluntary" but they are then coerced because if they do not agree to the services they will be taken to court. 

-          Sing-songy attitude by the prosecutors claiming they "invited" everybody makes one think this is voluntary.  They say the word voluntary.  This is NOT voluntary.  They aren't real clear in the beginning that if you don't agree they will be going to court.  They don't make this clear until the families meet one on one with the prosecutor. THEN sometimes they got around to telling them they go to court if you don't agree.  The mom with all the kids was not told that court is what happens if she won't agree. That mom just went along with it likely because she did have her hands full, she'd been cussed at by another parent and she wanted out of there!  She signed off almost immediately. 

-          What does the form say that they are signing? 

-          What are these "appointments" the prosecutor sets up with the families signing the forms?  A court date?  Another “invitation”?  A private meeting?  They don't explain to the parents (unless the form says what it is).  Jordan Boler would say: "Let's set up an appointment."  She specifically set up September 4th at 3:30 with one family, which led me to believe it’s another "invite" to this cattle call meeting.  

I'd like to get a copy of the form and I'd like to see the "invite" that came to all these families "inviting" them to attend. 

I'd love to meet someone who believes this helped their child. 

I will be attending more truancy "parties”, even though nobody "invited" me.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Bowker Family's Story



While Melanie Smotherman and I were in Sidney on July 30, we had a meeting at the Sidney Public Library with families who have been affected by Nebraska’s attendance law.  James and Lisa Bowker attended this meeting and told the following story about their son, Jamison.

Last school year, Jamison was an 8th grader at Leyton Middle School in Cheyenne County near Sidney.  He suffers from asthma and also had influenza last winter.  His mother, Lisa Bowker, provided doctor’s notes for every single day of his 23 absences.  In spite of that, the school sent a letter to Mrs. Bowker notifying her that they were referring Jamison to the county attorney for truancy.  The Bowkers requested a meeting with the school to discuss the referral and Jamison’s illnesses, but the school declined, saying “There’s nothing we can do; it’s the law.” 

Not only is the school incorrect about this – it is not the law that they have to refer children to the county attorney, if all their absences are excused – they also are required by the same law they are “quoting” to conduct a meeting with the parents and child prior to referral to the county attorney.

Upon receipt of the school’s referral, deputy county attorney Jonathon Stellar filed a petition against Jamison, accusing him of being “a juvenile who is habitually truant from home or school and deports himself in a manner so as to injure or seriously endanger the morals or health of himself or others.”

In early May, a sheriff’s deputy arrived at the Bowkers’ home at night, around 9:30 PM.  He came to their door and asked for Jamison.  He served Jamison with Mr. Stellar’s summons and, according to Jamison, informed him that if he didn’t show up in court, he would go to jail.  The sheriff then served Mrs. Bowker with duplicate paperwork.

The Bowkers appeared in court on May 23 and were appointed a guardian ad litem, Joel Jay.  They provided Mr. Jay with Jamison’s doctor’s notes, after which Mr. Jay told the judge that it looked like there were medical circumstances and he would like more time to review the case.  The case was continued and the Bowkers were ordered to return to court on June 6.

On June 6, the Bowkers returned to court as ordered.  It was at this court appearance that Jamison was told he may be removed from his home.  The Bowkers left that day with the understanding that the case was not being dismissed and that Jamison was found guilty of truancy.  Mr. and Mrs. Bowker both state that the deputy county attorney, Jonathon Stellar, told them that Jamison is not allowed to miss more than three days of school between August and December, 2013, even if those absences are excused and/or doctor’s notes are provided.  Mr. and Mrs. Bowker stated that they received no paperwork after this court proceeding, including no written order about the three day absence restriction.

I called Mr. Stellar’s boss, County Attorney Paul Schaub, during my meeting with the Bowkers and invited him to come over to the Sidney library and talk to them.  The reason I did this was because during our meeting with Mr. Schaub and Mr. Stellar only half an hour before, Mr. Stellar adamantly insisted that no sick children were having truancy charges filed against them in Cheyenne County.  I wanted Mr. Schaub to see for himself that Mr. Stellar’s statement wasn’t true.  Mr. Schaub was unable to come over immediately but asked to meet with the Bowkers the following day at 1:30 PM.

In researching the Bowker case later that day, we discovered that in fact, Jamison had actually been placed on truancy diversion and a diversion hearing was set for November 14.  Diversion is supposed to be voluntary and parents are supposed to receive and sign paperwork agreeing to the terms of diversion.  The Bowkers had never agreed to diversion, but worse than that, they weren’t even aware that Jamison had been placed on diversion and that they had an upcoming court hearing which they were required to attend.

Two comments in regard to diversion:  1) Diversion is completely inappropriate for a child with illnesses.  What is he being diverted from?  Asthma?  Influenza?  2)  Due to the court’s failure to notify the Bowkers of the required diversion hearing, we wonder what would have happened when they failed to appear. We don’t even want to think about what the deputy county attorney or the sheriff, who had already threatened to put Jamison in jail, would have done next.

During the meeting with the Bowkers at 1:30 on July 31, Mr. Schaub reviewed Jamison’s file.  All of the doctor’s notes were in the file, as well as a letter from the guardian ad litem recommending that the case not be pursued.  Despite that, Mr. Schaub’s employee, Jonathon Stellar, filed charges and Jamison was found guilty of truancy.

It turns out that the notice of diversion was sent to Jamison’s non-custodial parent, who lives in another county almost 300 miles away.  Jamison’s custodial parent, Lisa Bowker, did not agree to diversion and was never notified of the required court hearing.  This is in spite of the fact that Lisa is the parent living in Cheyenne County and her address is where Jamison and she were served the original summons, as well as the address of record with the school and the court.

Shortly after Lisa Bowker got home from the meeting with Mr. Schaub, he contacted her by phone and told her he was dismissing all charges against Jamison and releasing him from diversion.  This is good news for the Bowkers, but is also a common response from county attorneys when the abuses of the “truancy” law are brought into the public eye.

Obviously, the NFF has numerous issues with this case and with the way “truancy” is behind handled overall in Deuel and Cheyenne Counties:

  1. A school that is so woefully uninformed about the law that they still think they have to turn in every child at 20 days no matter the reason, and is completely unaware that a meeting with parent and child is mandatory prior to referral to the county attorney.
  2. A school that would decline a meeting with a concerned parent for any reason.
  3. A deputy county attorney who is responsible for enforcing the law, yet doesn’t appear to understand the law, including the steps the school needs to take as required by statute.
  4. A deputy county attorney who has full knowledge that every single absence was excused by doctor’s notes, yet files a petition with very serious (and false) allegations and consequences, including removal from the home.
  5. The same deputy county attorney telling us that no sick children have been faced with truancy charges in Cheyenne County.  We discovered his incorrect statement within half an hour, which leads us to wonder how many other children have been falsely accused of truancy and punished.
  6. A sheriff who appears on a family’s doorstep at night, demanding to see a 13-year-old child, and threatening him with jail.
  7. A judge who disregards the guardian ad litem’s recommendation for dismissal and ignores medical evidence, resulting in punishment for an innocent child.
  8. A deputy county attorney giving a verbal “order” restricting a sick child’s absences.
  9. A sick child being placed on diversion.  Again I will ask:  Diversion from what?
 We are relieved that County Attorney Paul Schaub quickly dismissed the two cases we brought to his attention.  He listened to us respectfully and appeared to be sincerely concerned about the issues we brought to his attention.  However, he has much work to do to repair the damage in Deuel and Cheyenne Counties.  We recommend he call for a full audit of truancy filings to get a clear picture of how many innocent children have been charged by his deputy county attorney, how many sick (and otherwise excused) children have been punished or “diverted”, and how much taxpayer money has been spent on guardians ad litem, public defenders, and other expenses in the pursuit of enforcing a “truancy” law that really isn’t about truancy at all.