Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Gina Miller's statement to the Omaha Public Schools board

My name is Gina Miller.  I am a parent of two Omaha Public School children, a fifth grader and an eighth grader.
Since you invited me to attend, I have been trying to write an “opening statement.”  I have been struggling to have something succinct and meaningful so you “the District board” understand our, “the parents” issues, frustrations, anger about the attendance law, the district policy and the implementation of said law and policy.  I have written dozens of drafts.
I was talking to a good friend of mine about my struggle.  She heard me out, and then in a calm voice, and with much clarity, said “Gina, tell them you are afraid of them!”
That is it!  This law, and the way the districts across this state have been implementing this law, have made families and children afraid of their school system, the one place my child should feel the safest and the people I should be partnering with, not against.  This law, the district policy, and how it is applied have made us enemies, parents and children against all of you and those you represent.
Our family and my child live in fear daily that she is going to be turned over to law enforcement because she is sick?  How is that right? 
I have a child with a chronic illness.  I call her into school each time she is sick. I check with her teachers to see if there is anything she needs to make up, she has good grades, my husband and I are active engaged parents.  Why then does my child need to be asked by school officials at her locker, in the hall, in front of her friends, if she knows how many days she has missed?  Why does she get comments from school officials along the lines of “I heard you were sick yesterday, you look fine today.  Did you go to the doctor?”  They KNOW she was sick, I CALLED HER IN!
Why do I receive threatening letters and calls from SPA’s asking me why my child has “excessive absences”?  Have they even talked to my child’s school or her teachers?  They all know why she is missing school. Why am I once again, explaining to a stranger, that a chronic illness plagues my daughter. 
My child can not control her illness.  We have spent thousands of dollars and have seen a dozen specialists about her illness.  There is no cure at this point.  What I need is a school that is supportive of her illness and how they can support my child’s education so she doesn’t get behind.   Not why was she gone, and does she have documentation to prove it, because we the system don’t believe you, the parent.  I have never once been asked if there is anything the school can do to assist with the information she has missed. 
I work daily to keep my children out of the law enforcement realm…. We preach don’t drink and drive, don’t do drugs, be good..but my school system is telling her that if she is sick and misses school she will be sent to juvenile justice?  That seems to be the ultimate contradiction that no parent's mind, let alone a child’s mind, can get around.
I understand that you deal with a lot of challenging family situations.  I know there are serious problems in our community that keeps kids from attending school regularly.  What we are asking of you is to get out of the game of mistrust and finger pointing and get back to the game of education, get back to engaging with our students so they WANT to come to school, support our students that have difficult home situations, NOT INTIMIDATE them under threat of law to come to school.
The school policy should have EXCUSED absences written into the policy. Illness, funerals, religious observances, college planning trips, parents on military leave, family vacations, children with once in a life time opportunities (educational opportunities, dancing in the Macy’s day parade, etc..)..should be considered EXCUSED and not count against their total days absent. 
I have taken off work the last year to battle this problem.  I have made a sincere effort to understand all sides of this issue.  I and many of the people in this room have met with county attorneys, legislators, school boards, superintendents, doctors, parents.    I am a member of the Attendance Coalition to build programs that can assist kids who have barriers to coming to school, and build partnerships for the myriad of services this community already has to offer children. 
At the end of the day, I keep coming back to what are we trying to accomplish with an attendance policy?  It should be to balance the rights of parents and children and  at the same time provide quality education for our kids.  For the life of me, I can not understand how involving law enforcement can assist in that endeavor.  Even the Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice said in an Omaha World-Herald article that courts are the “most expensive and least flexible” way to deal with truancy.  He said courts should be reserved for the most difficult and unresponsive TRUANTS, while others should be handled through school interventions.     
This afternoon we are ready to discuss the history of the law, the details of the policy, the hundreds of thousands of dollars that have been poured into the district to create an entire industry to implement and monitor attendance.  You will hear from families that have been referred to law enforcement and their lives and their children’s lives forever changed.
We are asking you to revise OPS attendance policy so good kids and families are never referred to law enforcement.  We are asking that you implement a policy similar to Gretna’s or Millard’s, which I have included for your review..  Their policy respects families and parental authority while still providing consequences for kids who are TRUANT (absent without excuse). 
The abuse, intimidation and fear needs to stop. My hope is that you will understand our concerns and that we can come together as parents, educators and administrators and agree upon a common sense, child/ parent focused policy that takes into consideration the life events that happen daily to our kids. 
Thank you for your service, for organizing this workshop and for listening to our concerns.
After the remaining speakers, I will be happy to take any questions. 

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