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.

4 comments:

  1. These stories make me sick. Thank you all for sticking with this problem and helping as many families as you can!

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  2. Thank you Brenda and Melanie for traveling all the way out here to our end of the state to help these families and bring these cases to light!!!

    You can imagine how nerve racking it is for parents, when this kind of thing is going on (and being denied), and then their school child comes down with hand-foot-and-mouth disease - that's an automatic week off school right there! Parents shouldn't have to live in fear of being served with a court case for their children being sick or having excused absences from school!

    Thanks for all you have done, and all you will continue to do!
    Lynisha Weeda, Sidney.

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  3. Lynisha Weeda, does your family also have personal experience with this? If so, we would be interested in learning more.

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