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School administrators could consider the mental health of chronically absent students as part of their efforts to keep them in school under a bill Bellevue Sen. Carol Blood plans to introduce in the next legislative session.

The bill would amend the law — by adding one word — that sets out the requirements for schools in dealing with students who miss too much school.

Blood said the change would be a small step to destigmatizing mental health problems students face, and a way to begin addressing an “alarming” suicide rate.

“I think whenever we have any issues pertaining to students dealing with violence the first thing we hear is ‘mental health,’ but we don’t see a lot of changes when it comes to embracing the mental health of our students,” she said.

Maddie Fennel, executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association, said the change would mean mental health would be treated the same as physical health under state law.

State law prohibits schools from using illness "that makes attendance impossible or impracticable" as a basis for referring students to the county attorney for possible truancy violations. 

“From our point of view, this is all around treating mental health like physical health and removing the stigma that keeps people from getting the help they need,” Fennel said.

The law now requires that school boards create a policy on attendance developed with the county attorney, which includes provisions on handling cases in which excessive absences are caused by illness and that set out at what point the school will get involved.

School administrators or social workers must meet with the student's parents or guardians and create a plan to reduce the barriers that keep the child from coming to school.

The law says the plan must consider illness related to physical or behavioral health — and Blood wants to add the word “mental” to that list.

The plan can also consider educational, family or individual counseling, referral to community agencies for economic or other services, as well as restorative justice practices.

If the efforts set out in the plan don’t improve attendance, schools can refer students who have missed more than 20 days of school to the county attorney for possible truancy violations, except for the illness provision. 

Blood said that would now also include mental as well as physical health.

The change wouldn’t create additional work or requirements for schools, she said.

Lincoln Public Schools Student Services Director Russ Uhing said the district already considers mental health issues when coming up with plans to help keep kids in school, and like physical illnesses, it’s something administrators consider when deciding whether to refer a student to the county attorney.

LPS has a guide for staff that tells them to consider such mental health issues as grief, trauma, anxiety and stress, Uhing said.

“When you look at barriers you have to look at anything that keeps students from school,” he said.

The Nebraska Department of Education has focused on chronic absenteeism — missing more than 20 days in a school year — and its effects on graduation rates and academic success.

Districts’ efforts to reduce chronic absenteeism are among factors considered in its accountability system that classifies districts.

Oregon recently passed a law allowing excused absences to include mental health days and Utah has a similar law on the books. 

Like Oregon’s law, Blood hopes a change in Nebraska law will help provide an opening for students to be honest when they’re struggling with mental health issues.

“The issue is, we’ve got to find ways to open the dialogue so children feel safe in talking about their mental health issues and one of the ways we do that is to add it into statute like we would illness or injury,” she said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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