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Changes proposed to school absenteeism law

Changes proposed to school absenteeism law

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LINCOLN — The Legislature's Judiciary Committee will revisit the controversial excessive school absenteeism issue, holding a hearing Wednesday on a proposal to make changes to the law.

The leader of the Nebraska Family Forum, a group of Omaha parents, welcomed the proposed changes to the law, saying the existing law has caused excessive difficulties for families across the state.

An amendment on the issue was filed last week by Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford on a juvenile justice bill (LB464). That and another amendment filed by Omaha Sen. Bob Krist, addressing juvenile court jurisdiction and probation, will be heard at the same time.

Krist's amendment also includes a change in the absenteeism law, clarifying that excused absences would not be included when reporting a student to the county attorney.

Ashford's amendment calls for creation of a Council on Student Attendance, consisting of seven members, including a school board member, two parents of schoolchildren, a superintendent and other state officials.

The council would recommend how to reduce excessive absences, review all school district absenteeism policies and recommend improvements.

The bill asks the Legislature to appropriate $2 million to the state Department of Education for funding grants to school districts for reduction of absenteeism and truancy.

It also takes out the requirement for an illness that is documented — with a doctor's note, for example — to be excused. And it would stop the ability of school districts to report unexcused absences to the county attorney.

"I think it's a huge step in the right direction," said Brenda Vosik, director of the Nebraska Family Forum.

There are still school districts across the state that are counting illnesses, going to a family member's funeral and college visits as unexcused absences, she said.

The law is an "utter failure," Vosik said, "and the effect it is having on minorities, particularly African-American children, is appalling."

Child Protective Services has been brought in and families have had their children removed from their homes. As a result, she said, parents are sending their kids to school sick, pulling them out of club sports, canceling college visits and other educational experiences.

"Any change achieved at the point of a gun, by force, is not sustainable," said Vosik.

Lincoln Public Schools includes both excused and unexcused absences in the list of 20 absences that result in a child's name being referred to the Lancaster County Attorney's Office. Those due to school activities, suspensions and visits to counseling or administrative offices are not included in the list, said Russ Uhing, LPS director of student services.

When excused absences include illnesses documented by a doctor or a school nurse, they are included but noted in the county attorney referral. The district also notes whether it wants additional time to work with families.

"The point is we want to have kids in school," he said.

LPS understands there are legitimate reasons kids will be absent, Uhing said. But 20 days is four full weeks, roughly 20 percent of a school year.

A report by Voices for Children Nebraska said that since Nebraska passed its absenteeism law in 2010, statewide rates of chronic absenteeism fell almost 2 percent, but increased in the last school year. In 80 school districts, rates remain unchanged or have increased.

The report shows 71 percent of students who missed 20 or more days in 2012-13 lived in poverty. Half or more were children of color, although they make up only 30 percent of the student population.

Since 2009, nearly 1,400 truancy charges have been filed, and 798 children have gone through the juvenile justice system to convictions. That represents steadily increasing court involvement.

A small but steady number of children younger than 14 have been prosecuted for truancy.

"Unfortunately, Nebraska's data reveal that we are leaning more heavily on the court system to solve challenges often better handled in the community," the Voices for Children report said.

This approach is both costly and ineffective, the report said.


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