Saying Nebraska's truancy law continues to put good parents and sick children under suspicion, a parents group is calling for the law's repeal.
The Nebraska Family Forum joined with Douglas County Board member Mary Ann Borgeson at a press conference Tuesday to highlight concerns about the law and announce plans for legislation.
Nebraska's truancy law was passed in 2010 and has been amended twice in hopes of better targeting at-risk students.
But Brenda Vosik, Family Forum director, 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.
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.
“Literally thousands of kids have been dragged into the justice system for no reason, and it is not ending,” she said.
State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, the chief architect of the law, said Tuesday that he is willing to look at ways to improve the law but will fight attempts to repeal it.
Members of four families — three of which have children in the Omaha Public Schools who missed classes because of illness — voiced their concerns about the law during Tuesday's press conference.
Antony Ward, a senior honor roll member and football player at South High, said he exceeded the 20-day mark his sophomore year. He had had mononucleosis. His mom kept the school informed. During that year, he also missed school while caring for his mom and two younger brothers, who contracted the flu.
One of his younger brothers, who suffers from chronic asthma, later faced a separate absence-related court challenge. Both cases were ultimately resolved, he said, but not without adding a lot of stress to an already stressed family.
He said his brother once said, “I wish I could be born again not sick.”
The parents group began raising concerns about the new law in 2011, as families began to feel its impact, and the group helped craft the latest amendment in 2012.
Vosik said she doesn't believe that further amendments can fix the law.
The parents group wants to return to a more traditional definition of truancy, in which the focus is on students who miss school without permission and in which parents have a greater role in excusing students.
The current law focuses on excessive absenteeism, regardless of the reason, and gives a bigger role to county attorneys.
Under the law, schools must refer students to the county attorney's office if they have more than 20 absences in a school year, with at least one being unexcused. Schools are to recommend whether the county attorney should proceed with action on referred students.
Schools may refer students if they have more than 20 excused absences, and county attorneys may get involved before a student hits the 20-day mark.
Vosik said there have been students referred to the legal system with only one unexcused absence and the rest excused.
But Ashford said the law is helping get children back into school and needs to continue.
“What I refuse to agree with is because there are complaints, we're going to throw this thing out,” Ashford said. “It is working for a lot of kids.”
He said some concerns raised by the parents group are the result of local school decisions, not the fault of the law. He also said some parents appear to believe that the state should not be enforcing school attendance.
School districts set their own policies about excessive absenteeism, and they vary widely on what can be an excused absence.
Ashford initially pushed the beefed-up truancy law as a way to address student achievement gaps and deal with juvenile violence in the Omaha area.
Backers included former Education Commissioner Roger Breed and Gov. Dave Heineman. Breed has since retired. Deputy Education Commissioner Scott Swisher declined to comment.
Family Forum's efforts to change the law this year have the backing of the Douglas County Board and the Nebraska Association of County Officials. Both groups have made truancy changes part of their 2014 legislative agendas.
Several other area groups either backed the call for repeal or otherwise expressed concern about its impacts.
Willie Hamilton, executive director of Black Men United, said the state is “going down a slippery slope when we impeded parents' rights to parent.” The group will host a public discussion about the law from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 14 at Metro Media Productions, 4200 N. 30th St.
Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom and the Heartland Workers Center also issued statements raising concerns about the law. The workers' group said in its statement it is concerned that many Latino immigrant families do not know about the law.
Borgeson said she became concerned because of numerous calls from unhappy parents and because of the cost of having the Douglas County Attorney's Office review around 3,000 absenteeism cases each year.
The Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties had provided $250,000 a year for two years to help with the Douglas County attorney's costs and $50,000 for the Sarpy County attorney. The funding was temporary and ended with the new budget year.
No other counties received help with the added costs of enforcement.
Larry Dix, executive director of the county officials group, said cost was a key factor in the association's decision to support changes in the law.
John Sieler of Omaha, a member of the Nebraska State Board of Education, said after the press conference that he supports efforts to reduce truancy but believes that the law is having unintended consequences.
He doesn't have all the answers, but he said changes are needed.
Ashford said the effort and cost are worthwhile to give Nebraska youngsters a better education.
Under the old law, schools and local prosecutors allowed too many students to miss too many days of school, he said.
State Department of Education records show that nearly 7.8 percent of Nebraska students missed more than 20 days of school in 2009-10, before the new law took effect. The figure was down to 5.8 percent last school year.
Vosik questioned whether truancy was as big an issue as it has been portrayed. She noted that statewide school attendance rates have barely budged in 15 years.
State figures show that, on any given day from 1998-99 through 2012-13, about 95 percent of Nebraska schoolchildren have been in their classrooms.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed how much money the Douglas County Attorney's office is receiving.