Editor's note: Today's story is the second in a three-part radio series on the state of education in Nebraska, culminating in a televised discussion program airing Thursday, March 29 at 7 p.m. CT on NET 2. Read part one of the series here.
By way of full disclosure: Roger Breed, quoted in the story below, is a member of the NET Commission.
One recent, warm Saturday morning, Lincoln High senior Preston Murray spent time working on his faded black Pontiac Grand Am. The car was in need of some repairs, but they were the kind you might try to figure out on your own in order to avoid a hefty mechanic's fee.
"Last night my car just kept on overheating, so I had to fix that," Murray explained. "We've just got to keep putting tons of coolant in it."
Photo by Ben Bohall, NET News
According to state Sen. Brad Ashford, studies showed more than 23,000 students kindergarten through 12th grade missed more than 20 days of school two years ago.
When he isn't troubleshooting an overheated engine, Murray is all about school and sports. He's worked hard to stay on top of class and finish his homework. After the last bell rings, you can usually find him shooting hoops with his friends or under the Friday night lights as a running back for the Lincoln High Links varsity football team.
But that picture of Murray is a stark contrast from the beginning of his senior year, when he was consistently skipping class and had begun to fall in with the rough crowd. The results were seen both in the classroom and on the field.
"I started hanging around with kids that were doing drugs," Murray said. "(They) got me into it, so then I came to school on drugs. Worst idea of my life ...
"I got suspended, I missed three of my games," he continued. "I only got to play five games out of the season, and that really broke my heart, because football is everything. I've been playing since I was five, so that really broke my heart."
Murray's story, and those like it, caught Nebraska state Sen. Brad Ashford's attention.
"What has happened over the years is that there's been a de-emphasis on school attendance," he said.
Ashford found himself at the forefront of recent legislation designed to lower truancy rates throughout the state's school districts.
"Two years ago, we found that over 23,000 students in Nebraska, K through 12, missed more than 20 days of school," he said. "Missing 10 days of school, for many youth, is enough to miss an entire semester, really, scholastically."
Ashford set out to orchestrate LB 800, a piece of legislation that aims to address the needs of at-risk youth and get to the heart of the state's truancy problem.
"LB 800 and the amendments to it all focus on the same thing: If a youth is out of school for a prolonged period of time, in this case over 20 days, and they don't have a valid excuse with the school district, that there be an effort (to correct the problem) at 20 days, and certainly before 20 days," Ashford said. "(Our goal) is to bring the school officials together with the parents and the juvenile justice authorities to try to find out why the child is not in school, and to try and help them."
The bill was passed in 2010, and amendments soon followed. The law mandated schools report any student to a county attorney after they missed more than 20 school days (or the hourly equivalent).
LB 800 has made its mark. Nebraska Commissioner of Education Roger Breed said that since the law's implementation, the number of students who were truant more than 20 days dropped by more than 15 percent.
"There is no doubt in my mind, nor is there doubt in the data that we have." Breed said. "That shows that the changes made in LB 800 a couple years ago, and the continuing efforts of parents, school districts, county attorneys and special programs are making a significant difference getting more kids to school. One of the first indicators of dropping out is non-attendance at school, and having excessive absenteeism at school."
But some felt the success of LB 800 and its amendments came at too high a cost. Concerned mothers like Stephanie Morgan, executive director of the Nebraska Family Forum, thought some of the bill's provisions were too harsh. Specifically, not noting the difference between "excused" and "unexcused" absences when considering punitive punishments.
Photo courtesy of Nebraska Legislature
Ashford set out to orchestrate LB 800, a piece of legislation that aimed to effectively address the needs of at-risk youth and get to the heart of the state's truancy problem.
"Families began reporting that they had been referred to law enforcement - in many cases taken to court, in some cases prosecuted - when their child's absences were all excused by their school authorities," Morgan said. "Most of them were because of documented illnesses. We wanted to change the law so that school districts would not be required to file cases at the county attorney's office on student they already knew were working with their schools, where they already knew what was going on with those kids."
Ashford and fellow lawmakers addressed those concerns by passing LB 933. The bill offered a compromise that amended how excessive absenteeism was handled by school districts. As a result, absences due to documented illnesses were no longer required to be reported.
Ashford said that's important. He felt the battle against truancy would come down to a collaborative effort among school districts, county attorneys and, most importantly, families.
"You know, anything we do that involves children in schools, we're going to get reaction from parents and that's the way it should be," he said. "I think what we've done here is we listened, we made changes and we're seeing good results. We'll continue to listen to families, listen to parents, listen to schools and make sure the process works correctly."
As for Lincoln High's Murray, his attendance problems never made it to court. But it didn't take long for the school to notify his parents. It was a tough lesson learned. It's also one he doesn't plan to repeat. He's been left scrambling to graduate on time and has searched for a college that will give him a chance to succeed on and off the field.
"It was one of the toughest experiences that I had, to get back on-track with school," Murray said. "Man, I wish I never did all that stuff in all aspects, school gets you to your highest accomplishment."
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