Participating in a October 29 news conference are, from left, Willie Hamilton, executive director of Black Men United; Brenda Vosik, Nebraska Family Forum director; and Douglas County Board member Mary Ann Borgeson.
Groups Call for Repeal of Truancy Law
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
The Douglas County Board, the Nebraska Association of County Officials and Nebraska Family Forum, an unfunded volunteer organization, have combined their voices to call for a repeal of the current Nebraska truancy law, LB 800, passed in 2010, and its two amendments, LB 463 and LB 933. They offer instead a new law that formally defines “truancy,” making the issue part of their legislative agendas.
“We recommend replacement of the law with a definition of truancy: An absence from school without the knowledge or permission of a parent or guardian,” Douglas County Board member Mary Ann Borgeson said at last Tuesday’s news conference.
The current truancy and excessive absenteeism statute allows for a maximum of 20 days of absence, regardless of the reason, excused or unexcused. The law calls for schools to refer students to the county attorney’s office at 20 absences in a school year (with at least one being unexcused). They may refer students with more than 20 even if all are excused. In some locations all excused absences must have a doctor’s note. The law, opponents say, makes no concessions for absences for family matters, taking parental discretion away.
Stories have related how some students who were sent home sick were then given an unexcused absence. According the anecdotal evidence cited, uniform application of the law from county to county is spotty. Some of those parents and children have been charged in juvenile court. Others, especially in Douglas County, have been put into a diversion program run by the courts.
“The cost of implementing the law in Douglas County alone is costing taxpayers $266,000 in the fiscal year 213-2014,” Borgeson said. While the new law has the Douglas County attorney’s office reviewing 3,000 cases a year, the actual cases deemed truancy has stayed about the same at under 250. She said she has received many calls from concerned citizens.
In Douglas County, some students have been offered the option of going to court or being put in a diversion program run by the courts.
“It is time to give back parenting to parents. It is time to give this issue back to the schools. It is time for schools to work for and with families again,” Borgeson said.
Brenda Vosik, Nebraska Family Forum director, said her group, started by two “concerned moms,” now numbers over 600 members, and is growing every week as more and more Nebraskans are harmed by this law.”
Vosik said the law continues to subject families to unnecessary legal oversight, including in situations in which most of the absences in question were for illness.
“The law is fatally flawed,” she said.
Three parents and a student who have been affected by this law spoke at the conference.
For instance, Antony Ward, 18, a senior honor roll member and captain of the South High football team, told how he had exceeded 20 absences his sophomore year when he had mononucleosis, then his mother, a single parent, and his two little brothers became ill and he had to stay home to care for them, all of which the school was aware. (He noted that he was “the man of the house.”) His brother has chronic asthma and was also cited for exceeding the 20-day limit.
Both cases, initially referred by the County Attorney’s office to law enforcement, were resolved eventually, but were extremely stressful, he said. His little brother told him, “I wish I could be born again not sick.”
Parents told equally distressing stories of their children’s experiences. They pleaded for the repeal of the law, some wearing signs saying, “Repeal.” One parent suggested that the County Attorney’s office only become involved after two years if no progress is made, despite the efforts of parents, students and schools.
One parent compared Omaha Public School’s policy on student excused absences to their policy on paid employee absences, all eleven pages of the latter, and expressed dismay at what they deemed a lack of tolerance for parental decisions on children’s absences.
Willie Hamilton, executive director of Black Men United, who also addressed the audience, is also in favor of a repeal. He said the group will host a public discussion about the law from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14, at Metro Media Productions, 4200 N. 30th St.
Sen. Brad Ashford, who was not in attendance, has defended his law and the amendments, saying it is helping get children back into school and needs to continue. He says that some of the questionable actions that parents describe are the result of decisions by local schools, who have discretion in how they handle individual situations.
When asked about Ashford’s current position, Borgeson said he told them he is willing to listen to their ideas, and make changes to improve the law, although he still maintains that he doesn’t think the law should be repealed.
“We are asking educators and politicians to get out of the business of parenting,” one parent pleaded. “I need a school supportive of my child and her educational needs,” not one who decides whether a reason for a child’s absence – sanctioned by the parent – is good enough.