Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Comments to the OPS School Board by Brenda Vosik, Director of the NFF

Brenda Vosik
Comments for the OPS Attendance Workshop
September 9, 2013

My name is Brenda Vosik.  First of all, I want to say that I am a proud graduate of Benson High School.  I am now the mother of two college students, a high schooler, and a middle schooler, as well as the grandmother of a toddler.  I am also the director of the Nebraska Family Forum.  The NFF is a grass roots organization that was founded in response to the harmful effects of the “excessive absenteeism” law passed by our legislature three years ago.  Today, our group numbers 570 members, and we are very active throughout the state, particularly in the Omaha area, as advocates for families that have been harmed by this law.

The excessive absenteeism law was passed in 2010 at a time when only 7% of Nebraska’s children were absent 20 days or more per year—and 93% were not.  There is no data on how many of those absences were due to children skipping school, also known as truancy, and how many were due to legitimate reasons, such as chronic health conditions.  However, due to political and financial circumstances occurring in the background, this 7% number was declared a “truancy crisis” and a law was passed making 20 days of absence, for any reason, a crime. Ironically, the word “truancy” isn’t even in the law, and the affect it is having on children who are really skipping school is not even being measured.

When this law came to the attention of the founders of the NFF, they were concerned that it would cast a huge net over all Nebraska families.  Unfortunately, those concerns quickly became a reality.  Children with chronic health conditions, children with special needs, including those with I.E.P.’s and I.H.P.’s who should be protected under federal law, and many other innocent children are being referred to law enforcement unjustly.  In fact, the immediate result of the law here in Douglas County could reasonably be called chaotic.  The number of children referred to the county attorney for “truancy” jumped from 250 in 2010, to 4,500 in 2011.  Sick children have been removed from their homes and made wards of the state, parents have been put in jail, and parents of sick children have been forced to comply with monitoring and diversion under threat of losing their kids.

Over the past three years, Douglas County and OPS have created what I call an “attendance industry” consisting of county attorneys, attendance officers, SPA’s, social workers, and other enforcers of the absenteeism law.  More than $1,000,000 has been funneled away from educating our kids to punishing our kids.  This money could have been used to provide services to families who are struggling with actual truancy issues, or other circumstances that prevent concerned, caring parents from getting their children to school.

In 2012, the NFF fought for an amendment to the excessive absenteeism law which would protect children with illnesses and other legitimate absences, while at the same time cracking down even harder on real truancy.  Although we had to settle for a compromise amendment, LB 933, that small change in the law gave discretion to the school districts to define excused and unexcused absences.  No disrespect to Mr. Hamilton, but it is no longer true that all students have to be turned into the county attorney at 20 days of absence; that is the old law.  Under the new law, students with all excused absences no longer have to be referred to the county attorney.  Unfortunately, official OPS policy, as stated on-line, is that all students will be referred at 20 days absence, regardless of the reason.

What is the result of that policy, and who are the families that are being referred to law enforcement?  Every week, independent observers attend Douglas County truancy court and watch the parade of children, mainly from OPS, get sorted, monitored, diverted and prosecuted by young assistant county attorneys.  Granted, some of these kids are teenagers who are indeed skipping school and are really truant, but based on our observations, we believe the majority of children being referred to the county attorney by OPS are not truant.  Here are some examples of what we see every week in truancy court:

Children with chronic physical and mental health issues.  Children with asthma, allergies and autism; a child with Down’s Syndrome and another with one kidney.  Children as young as age five who aren’t even legally required to attend school yet.  Families who are facing difficulties unfathomable to most of us in this room, families who have pressing priorities far more urgent than making sure their children are present in school for an arbitrary number of days, families whose top priority must be getting food on the table and a roof over their head, even if that means their child must be occasionally tardy or absent.  Families simply living their lives, full of challenges, behaving in a perfectly normal manner.  These are the families of OPS.  These are the families that are being punished, threatened with losing their children, and forced into diversion, as if a prosecutor could possibly “divert” a child from serious illness, mental health issues, or poverty.  These children are not criminals and neither are their parents.  They are human beings with human challenges like you and me.  The huge majority of them love their children, like you and me, and want what’s best for them.  They have the right to raise their children and make decisions about the health and well being of their families, without a government worker or school official – a stranger – micro managing their daily decisions.  The implication that these parents can’t be “trusted” to decide when their own child needs to stay home from school is not only ludicrous, it is insulting.  This lack of trust has severely damaged what should be a special and cooperative relationship between school, parent, and student. 

I want to speak briefly about the GOALS Center.  I’m sure Treva will expand on this topic, but I want to point out that GOALS was set up within the Learning Community for the specific purpose of offering services and assistance to families who are struggling with attendance issues.  GOALS is supposed to be the first referral offered by OPS.  However, last year only 180 cases were referred to GOALS and almost 3,000 were referred to the County Attorney!  Those numbers should be reversed.

Please refer to the binder that Gina gave you and read the accounts written by OPS families who have been directly and negatively impacted by the current attendance policy.  As you will see, these stories are frightening and heart breaking.  They are also unnecessary, because of last year’s amendment.  You, the board, now have discretion regarding who is turned over to law enforcement.  We believe OPS should be offering protection and support to its students, instead of throwing them into the juvenile justice system.  The NFF hopes you will revise your attendance policy accordingly, to allow for reasonable absences from school.  It is your responsibility to protect the innocent families in your district from ever falling under the purview of law enforcement.  By fulfilling that responsibility, you can also begin the process of rebuilding trust with the people you serve – the parents and children of OPS.

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