Attendance Policy Revisions Left to School Boards

Brenda Vosik, director of the Nebraska Family Policy Forum, talks to a room of concerned parents about the effects of the absenteeism law. (Photo Courtesy of Splash! Magazine)
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January 2, 2014 - 6:30am

Some Nebraska parents are calling for lawmakers to change the current school attendance policy, but one senator says concerned parents need to talk to the school board.


Under Nebraska’s current excessive absenteeism law, if a school-age child is absent 20 days per year from school and even if all of the absences are the result of a documented illness that makes attendance impossible or are otherwise excused by school authorities, the school attendance officer may report such information to the county attorney.

While parents and advocacy groups such as Nebraska Family Policy Forum and Black Men United want the school attendance law repealed, Nebraska State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha says opponents need to look to their local school boards for solutions.

(Photo Courtesy of Nebraska Legislature)

Sen. Brad Ashford said he is not interested in revising the current absenteeism bill. He said parents need to consult with the school board.

 

“We’ve left it up to the schools to determine what the policy is regarding absences,” Ashford said. “It’s not about state law changes. I’m not even remotely interested in revising state law.”

 Ashford said disapproval for the policy comes from school officials not dealing with absenteeism in a consistent manner. He said while some schools may have been lax about student absenteeism, others may have taken a more strict approach, which left many families in court.

Justin Wayne, president of the Omaha Public School board, said they are currently reviewing the school’s policy. Wayne said the intention of the law is about finding the underlying reason for a child missing school in order to help them get back on track and be successful.

“We’re going to make some changes in regard to how we deal with kids who have illness, deal with kids who are gone on vacation. We’re going to make it more family friendly to make sure kids are not caught up in a system they don’t need to be in,” Wayne said.

Lavon Stennis-Williams is the executive director of Triage, an organization that has partnered with the juvenile court system to assist children who are excessively absent. She said there is a misconception the county attorney is unthinkingly filing charges against children and their parents because that child has missed a lot of school.

“They at first attempt to resolve it by referring that family to community programs,” Stennis-Williams said. “The other thing we’re finding out is that the kids who we’re serving are not absent because of illnesses. They are absent because they have just chosen not to go to school. We’re also finding many parents who are just enabling them by saying, ‘Well I’ve given up. I can’t make him or her go to school so I don’t try.’”

Stennis-Williams said solutions need to be made from a neutral ground that focus on the best interest of the child and not the convenience of parents or the community.

Unfortunately, the solutions that are already in place are affecting minorities and low-income families at a disproportionate rate, according to Sarah Forrest, policy coordinator child welfare and juvenile justice at Voices for Children.

“In 2012 even though white children in our state make up the majority of the population they made up less than half of the children who are filed on in juvenile court for truancy,” Forrest said. “Children and youth of color are more likely to formally enter the juvenile justice system for truancy than they were before the law was passed.”

(Photo Courtesy Splash! Magazine)

Omaha Public Schools Board President Justin Wayne assures parents that there will be revisions to the attendance policy.

Forrest said more than 70 percent of children who miss 20 or more days of school meet the requirements for free and reduced lunch. These statistics could spell trouble for these children in the future, according to Forrest.

“Once a kid becomes involved in the juvenile justice system national research really shows that it can have a lot of negative outcomes for them. It actually makes it harder in terms of educational achievement. It exposes them to a number of risks that we just would rather see those kids not exposed to,” Forrest said.

Ashford is currently drafting a bill to allocate $2 million for schools to develop their own programs to fight truancy. Although he doesn’t believe the county attorney can completely be cut out of the picture, he wants to provide more resources to help schools serve students.

“The reason that I don’t think you can totally take the county attorney office or the juvenile court system--again these are not criminal offenses these are status offenses. You’re supposed to be in school. Therefore, if you’re not in school and you have no excuse and the school district can’t find you then something has to be done,” Ashford said.

The Omaha Public School board is expected to have a revised attendance policy in place by the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year.

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