Thursday, January 30, 2014

The NFF supports proposed changes to Nebraska's excessive absenteeism law

Two amendments have been filed in an effort to revise Nebraska’s excessive absenteeism law.  Below is a brief summary of what is included in those amendments, as well as the expected outcome of the proposed changes.  Both amendments are available on-line if you want further details or wish to read them in their entirety.

The Nebraska Family Forum supports these changes, and will be issuing a formal statement of support at the Judiciary Committee hearing on February 5.

I.  January 23, 2014, Amendment 1674 to LB 464 (2013) filed with the following change to the excessive absenteeism law:

“If the child is absent more than twenty days per year or the hourly equivalent and any all of such absences are not excused, the attendance officer shall file a report with the county attorney of the county in which the person resides…”

Expected outcome of this change:
Schools would no longer be required to turn in children who have reached 20 days of absence if just one absence is unexcused.  Instead, schools would be required to only turn in students with 20 unexcused absences.  With this change, we believe there will be a significant decrease in the number of children being referred to the county attorney.

II.  January 28, 2014, Amendment 1734 to LB 464 and AM 1674.  This amendment includes the following changes:

A.  “All school districts shall have a written policy on excessive absenteeism developed in collaboration with the county attorney….The policy shall include a provision indicating how the school district and the county attorney will handle cases in which excessive absences are due to documented illness that makes attendance impossible or impracticable….”

Expected outcome of this change:
By striking the word “documented,” school districts will need to consider circumstances in which children are ill but do not have a doctor’s note.  Requiring a doctor’s note for every minor illness is impractical and an extreme burden on families, especially those without health insurance and/or who are living in poverty.  In school districts throughout the state, parents are no longer allowed to call their own child in sick.  We are hopeful that this change will restore common sense in school policy, as well as respect of parental judgment. 

B.  “If the child is absent more than twenty days per year or the hourly equivalent and all of the absences are due to documented illness that makes attendance impossible or impracticable or are otherwise excused by school authorities, the attendance officer may shall not report such information to the county attorney…”

Expected outcome of this change:
The schools will no longer have the option of turning over children with all excused absences; in fact, this language prohibits them from doing so.  This should result in an immediate decrease in the number of children referred to the county attorney by the school districts who have been reporting children with all excused absences. 

C.  In addition to the changes above, AM 1734 creates a Council on School Attendance.  This council will be charged with various tasks related to school attendance, including:

1.     Considering whether school district policies and practices for addressing truancy and absenteeism are operational and effectively working to address truancy and making recommendations for improvements where necessary;

2.     Reviewing all school district policies and making specific recommendations for school district policy improvement.

3.     Money would be appropriated for the purpose of funding grants to school districts that need assistance with programs regarding absenteeism and truancy.  The money would be given to the State Department of Education (not law enforcement), and the Dept. of Ed would determine the grant application and distribution process to the school districts.

Expected outcome of this change:
School districts with unreasonable attendance policies (i.e., not excusing legitimate absences such as funerals, court appearances, normal childhood illnesses, college visits, etc.) and those who are targeting children with disabilities, I.E.P.’s, and physical and mental health issues will have oversight and input from the Council on School Attendance.  Schools who qualify for grant money would be given funding to assist their students who are struggling with attendance, rather than funding county attorneys to punish those students.

They Have Broken His Spirit

They Have Broken His Spirit:  The Strauss Family, Gering, Nebraska

I have been bullied on several occasions by the Gering Public School system and have been referred several times to the County Attorney.  My son has a mental health disorder and on several occasions had medication changes.  He also had surgery for a broken/injured hand several times. All his excuses were approved by me so I did not agree with the court documents stating he was truant.

My son is now in high school, 17 years old, on an IEP, medication changes,  and just struggles walking in that  door.  His self esteem is zero, and the lip service the school gives me about working with my child is so old.  The threat of turning us into the County Attorney came up again in our meeting last week.

I hope that this group can continue their work regarding parental rights and the right of the parent to decide what is best for their child. I actually had the County Attorney tell me regarding my son's surgery on his hand that I could have sent him to school.  I explained that he was under the influence of Vicodin; she stated that as long as it was a medication with a prescription that he should have been attending. 

I am considering filing the paperwork to let my son drop out of school. I simply do not feel that he is getting an education and being treated fairly by a school system that my tax dollars support.

The principal informed me that I cannot take him out of school until he is 18 and that by law he has to file documents with the County Attorney.  From my research, I’ve discovered that I can sign documents and complete an exit interview, at which time I present my reasons in front of the school board for taking him out of this school.

This whole situation is unfortunate as he is entitled to a free public education. There has simply been too much history and terrible experiences related to his education and IEP processes, and of course the school's one-sided documents to support, as they say, "bending over backwards" to educate my child.  It’s simply not true.

Regardless of my situation and decisions I make, the truancy law as written continues to put undue pressure on good parents, and leave children frightened about a system that they do not understand.   These are kids who have normal teenage problems; they are not criminals.

Parents need to be able to make the best decisions related to their children.  There are so many frightened parents that have to sit and listen to a County Attorney tell them there is no reason at all for a child to miss school.  The County Attorney also forces the parents to sign an attendance document that states that they are guilty of truancy even if they have shown documents of why the child missed.

I asked about this form and why I needed to sign a document admitting my son was truant, even though he’s not.  I presented the County Attorney with notarized documents and pictures of my son’s surgical repair, as well as dates of his appointments.  She didn’t care about any of his medical problems and she didn't even want to look at what I gave her.  It was during this meeting that she informed me that I should have sent him to school even though he was recovering from surgery and taking the pain killer Vicodin. 

I am tired of this.  I have had four long years of bullying by the Gering Public Schools.  Four long years of my son not being educated.  Four long years of this school not honoring his IEP and bullying him to the point of his mental health becoming worse.  He now has no self worth, and zero confidence. The public school used the truancy law to bully me further, as they stated they are mandated by law to turn it over to the county attorney.  I know that’s not true, because the law requires provisions for sick kids, which our school district isn’t following.  I didn't have to go in front of a judge, but DHHS was called and that is just as frightening.

I have a son with an Axis 1 bipolar disorder.  He has had many ups and downs with his illness, many medication changes and a big target on his back.  He has made some teenage mistakes, like lots of people do.  He has taken responsibility, and answered for those mistakes.  I can't help but think that some of this is related to the “bad boy” label that the school gave him and they’re using the truancy law to punish him further, even though he has never skipped school.  They have broken his spirit.

Part of me wants to make the school honor his IEP and educate him.  I have been threatened once again with being referred to the County Attorney because my son changed medication after sinking into a deep depression. He is stable now and has an adjusted school schedule. Simply put, he cannot continue to walk through those doors five days a week.  After all the abuse by the school, and now the County Attorney, he just experiences too much anxiety and a very real feeling of spiraling downhill again. 

It’s been very hard for him, and for me.

I am a college graduate and a social worker.  I have 19 years of experience working with individuals and families in various agencies. The majority of my career has included working with mental health consumers.  I know without a doubt the way my son is being treated by the school and County Attorney is harming him, not helping him at all.

I have heard so many stories related to public schools and violations of IEP's. The truancy law has added yet another stress for parents and youth, and another way for schools to hurt kids with special needs, this time with the threat of law enforcement and DHHS.  This is wrong and it needs to be changed for the sake of our kids.

I have also had my son express suicidal ideations, the majority of his depression triggered from school issues.

How many families are out there who don’t know how to advocate for their child?  I am sure there are many.  Bless you for your tireless work and being a voice for parents.

Becky Strauss
Gering Public Schools
January 30, 2014

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Unbearable Consequences of Nebraska's Attendance Law

Deena Wilson* is a single mother raising her 15-year-old daughter, Charity,* in a small town in east central Nebraska (*names have been changed to protect the privacy of the child).  Her heartbreaking story shows the stark reality of the damage that’s been done to Nebraska’s children when the schools joined forces with law enforcement, and state law made absences and tardies a crime.

My daughter struggles with several physical and mental health issues.  She has bowel obstruction disorder, which is very painful.  She also struggles with severe depression and has bipolar disorder.  We have worked for years to get her stabilized, and have had to turn to the State of Nebraska because we could not afford the mental health care she needs.  We have a caseworker who has done a pretty good job helping us and Charity has made a lot of progress.

Because of her physical and mental health issues, Charity has missed the “magic number” of 20 days this year, but they were all excused.  However, one day, she was really struggling with her depression and I had trouble getting her out of bed and off to school.  I was honest with the school about why she was late, and I certainly regret that now!  The school counted that tardy as unexcused and threw my already fragile daughter into the criminal justice system.

Charity was terrified about going to court last Thursday (January 9) and so was I.  We both knew that one of the consequences of being found “truant” is being taken from your parents.  That is the last thing Charity needs.  I just can’t understand how anyone can think going to court and being threatened with losing your mom is helping children, especially kids who are already fragile and struggling like my daughter.  How does standing in front of a judge and being accused of a crime by some young prosecutor help any child?

Well, it certainly didn’t help my daughter, that’s for sure.  She was so traumatized by the court experience and by the pressure being put on her to get to school “no matter what” that after our court appearance, Charity tried to commit suicide.  She took a knife to her arm and sliced herself up, trying to find a vein.  We rushed her to the hospital and she’s in the psych ward at Bryan LGH in Lincoln right now.

I am devastated.  She was doing so well and had made so much progress.  We were working with the school, with her doctors, and with the caseworker, and things were getting better.  That is, until Nebraska’s attendance law sent my daughter back into a spiral and she almost paid for it with her life.

The state of Nebraska has no business sending children with illnesses and other struggles into the court system as if they’re criminals.  My daughter is not a criminal.  She is a precious child who has challenges that most people can’t even imagine.  She is simply trying to make her way in the world, get a good education and get the help she needs to overcome her illnesses.  She didn’t deserve to be treated this way.

Is this law really helping kids?  I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care.  It almost cost our family more than we can bear.  If a few kids are going to school a little more often because of this terrible law, or test scores have gone up a little bit, it makes no difference to me.  I almost lost my daughter.  That is a price that no parent should be asked to pay, yet that is what our state is asking of us.

Please, I beg of our lawmakers to change this law before another child is traumatized and attempts to take their life.  Perhaps the next child will succeed.  Will test scores matter then?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Lancaster County: Misuse of Excessive Absenteeism Law and CPS Continues

Edwina Christiansen is a single mother preparing for the Nebraska Bar exam.  Her 9-year-old daughter has mental health issues that require extra support from Edwina and from the school.  Edwina has readily faced her daughter's challenges and was successfully working together with the school to overcome them when, much to her surprise, the school turned her family over to the county attorney.  Edwina shares her story below:

My daughter has ADHD and ODD and throws temper tantrums in the morning.  During those tantrums, she sometimes locks herself in her room. Because of this, she has been tardy by 5-10 minutes on several occasions.

I have been working with the school and they are well aware of my daughter’s challenges.  We came up with a plan together to reduce her tardies.  With the supervision of my daughter’s doctor, we changed her med routine and she hasn’t had any tardies since.  I am so proud of her progress!  At our last meeting with the school on December 4, the assistant principal even commented on how much progress we had made with the tardies.

Imagine my shock to find out, after working so well with the school (or so I thought), that they had turned us in to the county attorney—not for absences but for tardies!  The school never once mentioned that they were going to turn us in to law enforcement although we had communicated regularly.  I didn’t even realize tardies were against the law in this state.  We just moved here from Oklahoma in May.  My daughter had some tardiness there, but the school never made an issue of it.

I am now charged with educational neglect and being prosecuted by the Lancaster County Attorney just because of my daughter’s tardies.  The County Attorney called CPS and a caseworker was here on Monday.  She wanted to interview my daughter separately, but I did not allow that to happen.  She interviewed us both together and said she doesn’t understand why the County Attorney is pursuing us because I’ve worked with the school and found ways to help my daughter stop being tardy.

Now my daughter has to miss school to go to court on Thursday, isn’t that ironic?  She has only had three other absences, and all were for medical reasons.  I think it’s horrible that a 9-year-old has to go through the trauma of a courtroom.  She isn’t a criminal and she hasn’t done anything wrong.  Neither have I!  I am just a mom who is trying to help my daughter in every way I can.

Another huge problem in all of this mess is that I am a law school graduate and I’m in the process of becoming a licensed attorney in Nebraska.  Right now I’m in the middle of the character and fitness portion of the Nebraska Bar admission process.  Having an open CPS case and child neglect charges on my record puts a serious wrench in things.  This law is threatening not only my family, but my entire livelihood.

Another thing that I find really questionable is that Lancaster County is using tardies from Tulsa against us.  How can they use information from another state to prosecute me in Nebraska?  My daughter went to Everett here in Lincoln in 2009-2010 and only had one tardy.  Last year, she wasn’t tardy once.  It’s just been this year that she’s had trouble in LPS and we’ve fixed it.  They are using tardies from a school that isn’t even in their jurisdiction and prosecuting us for that—it’s written right in the official complaint that they’re charging us for tardies in Oklahoma.  How can they legally do that?

In Tulsa, the school provided my daughter support in their in-school counseling system.  Yes, she was tardy sometimes but they understood and supported her.  Here in Nebraska, they turn you over like you’re a criminal or an abusive parent.

They have even assigned a guardian ad litem, who I assume will talk to my daughter at the school when I’m not present.  By the time we get to court on Thursday, there will be five public officials, all paid with our tax dollars, involved in this attack on our family:  A judge, the prosecutor, the GAL, the CPS worker, and my public defender.

I can definitely say that this law isn’t about helping families; quite the opposite.  This law, and the way LPS and Lancaster County are treating us, is harming my family enormously.  I think it’s horrible that the school can muck up our entire lives just to make their No Child Left Behind scores better.  That’s what this is about, not at all about what’s good for our children.