Omaha Public Schools has revised its attendance policy, aligning it with state law and adding several new categories for excused absences.
The revised policy was approved by the school board Jan. 22. The practices of the policy, which include the new categories, go into effect next school year.
The changes are minor, said Matt Ray, the interim executive director of student and family services.
“A lot of it is just to clean up some of the wording and make sure everything is in line with the state statute,” he said.
The policy outlines the steps to take when a student is found to have excessive absences — defined as five days of unexcused absences per quarter — which includes meetings with school principals and parents and options that include counseling, evaluations and referrals to community agencies to root out the cause of the student's chronic absenteeism.
In line with a 2012 amendment to the state law, the district tweaked a controversial state provision that requires the school attendance officer to file a report with the county attorney's office if a student had more than 20 absences in a school year.
Now, the state law and the OPS policy distinguishes that a referral must be made to the county attorney for more than 20 unexcused absences. If a student has 20 excused absences, including absences due to illness, the attendance officer can still file a report, but it's not mandatory, Ray said.
Even if a report is filed for 20-plus unexcused absences, the attendance officer can still request more time to work with the student and family to address the attendance issues before requesting that the County Attorney's Office step in.
The Nebraska Family Forum parent group has been lobbying lawmakers to repeal Nebraska's 2010 truancy law on the basis that too many families — some with chronically sick kids — have found themselves in the crosshairs of the legal system. The Douglas County Attorney's Office receives around 3,000 absentee referrals each year.
The attorney's office approved OPS's revisions.
The biggest attendance changes will be rolled out for the 2014-15 school year, when the district expands its list of acceptable or excused absences to include events like college visits, court appearances, military deployments and religious holiday observances.
“It will go out in the code of conduct books, and we'll have to retrain almost every attendance secretary,” Ray said.
Asked by the board to adopt flexible, family-friendly guidelines, Ray said his office specifically made mention that medically excused absences include absences related to hospitalizations or long-term illnesses overseen by a licensed doctor. Some parents and board members were concerned that chronically ill students would need to provide a doctor's note for each and every absence.