Some parents unhappy with Nebraska's truancy law, but officials say it's working

2011-12-26T21:00:00Z Some parents unhappy with Nebraska's truancy law, but officials say it's workingBy JoANNE YOUNG / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com
December 26, 2011 9:00 pm  • 

Many Nebraska school officials will tell you tougher state truancy measures in the past two years have been effective. 

Excessive absences, defined as 20 or more in one school year, are down -- significantly.

Across the state, significantly fewer students missed more than 20 days after the law went into effect, according to Nebraska Education Commissioner Roger Breed. In 2009-10, 21,980 students missed 20 days or more. Last year, the number was down to 18,100.

In Lincoln Public Schools, 3,198 students had excessive absences in 2009-10. The number fell to 2,720 last year.

But parents like Lucy Hall of Lincoln believe some students and families have been mistakenly swept up in the law.

The law says students must be in school, except when excused by school authorities or when illness or severe weather makes attendance impossible or impractical.

After five absences in a quarter, a school must begin to act, including meeting with parents to address the causes for absences, or with counseling, evaluation or investigation.

If absences reach 20 days, the school must report the student to the county attorney. The county attorney may then decide to file a complaint against the parent or the student.

Hall's family ended up in court and then in a court-led truancy diversion program at Park Middle School, aimed at reducing excessive absences. Home visits by an Omni Behavioral Health counselor also were conducted.

Shannon Hall had missed 15 days of middle school in that year, and at least five in the semester before, mostly because of severe allergies that are worst in the fall months, her mother said.

The judge was not convinced, she said, that her absences should have been excused and didn't want to hear about her daughter's good grades and achievements.

She's out of the program this year -- now at Lincoln Southwest High School -- and her parents are sending her to school even when they think she should stay home. The school nurse is deciding if she should stay or go.

The mother said they are "terrified" it could happen again. They also have a younger son who has a learning disability and also has bad allergies.

"If he misses a day, it just becomes very scary," she said.

Stephanie Morgan, who moderates a blog for Nebraska Family Policy Forum on the truancy law and parents' rights, said parents should be able to decide if their sick children go to school.

The issue also has come up for kids who miss school for club sports competitions, educational and family trips and out-of-school learning experiences.

She has collected dozens of stories about families caught up in the law because they allowed their children to miss school for family reunions, to be with fathers on military leave, for family illnesses or recovering from family deaths.

Children have ended up in foster care or group homes, or have dropped out of school in at least a few cases.

"I have a concern about the impact of the law on the culture of parenting, how it would change the everyday working of family life ... and how it is going to impact our kids," she said.

She recently recommended to the Legislature's Judiciary Committee that lawmakers restore the classic definition of truancy to the law -- unexcused absences -- rather than keep the expanded version.

Russ Uhing, director of student services for Lincoln Public Schools, said schools take into account the reasons for absences. And while the district must obey the law, it works with the Lancaster County Attorney's Office in recommending whether or not to file charges.

The intent of the law is good, he said.

Alicia Henderson, chief deputy of the juvenile division of the Lancaster County Attorney's Office, said when the law went into effect, excessive absence referrals tripled or doubled in some months. This year, they have leveled off.

Some cases are clear, others more difficult.

"We work very hard to make sure that we are filing cases where we believe the child has been absent from school without a legitimate, verifiable medical reason or excuse," she said.

But sometimes, it is tough to determine what is going on in the family to cause students to miss excessively, she said.

Occasionally, if charges are filed in which there are questions, the county attorney's office may dismiss the case, or let things ride for a while to see if attendance improves, she said.

The office also is exploring the possibility of a truancy diversion program, instead of students having to go to court.

"The real benefit to this law is that ... parents, and kids, as well as the schools, are focusing on truancy and attendance at school, and that is a good thing," she said.

Education Commissioner Breed told the Judiciary Committee this month the law appears to be working. He and others, including county attorneys, recommended no changes to the law for at least two more years.

"It has, and will continue, to make a difference," he said.

Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com -- You can follow JoAnne's tweets at twitter.com/ljslegislature.

 

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