LINCOLN — Nebraska's controversial truancy law could be on its way out.
In the face of mounting concerns, State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha said he now backs a return to the traditional truancy emphasis on students with unexcused absences.
The change should mean far fewer schoolchildren entangled in the legal system and a bigger role for schools in addressing student absences.
“In some sense we're going back to the way it was, but with a lot more focus on the problem,” Ashford said.
The Judiciary Committee will hold a public hearing on the proposed changes at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in the State Capitol.
Four years ago, Ashford was the chief architect of a new truancy law aimed at cracking down on students who miss school.
That law shifted the focus to “excessive absenteeism,” meaning that students could come under legal scrutiny for excused as well as unexcused absences.
Protests soon followed.
Parents complained that the law was subjecting families to unnecessary legal oversight and cited several cases of sick children being called into court.
Lawmakers attempted twice to address the concerns by amending the law, but troubling cases continued to surface. County officials raised concerns about the burden on county attorneys to review the exploding number of truancy referrals.
Last fall, the Nebraska Family Forum joined with the Douglas County Board and the Nebraska Association of County Officials to call for repeal of the truancy law.
Voices for Children in Nebraska added to the concerns last week with a report calling for keeping truant youths out of the legal system.
The report showed that the current law falls most heavily on low-income and minority children. Of the students who missed 20 or more days during the past school year, 71 percent were low-income and half were African-American, Latino or Native American.
The report also said the number of truancy filings more than doubled under the law, from 681 in 2009 to 1,395 in 2012. Filings were more likely against minority students.
Brenda Vosik, director of the Nebraska Family Forum, said she is pleased with the changes being proposed.
“They would be a huge improvement and would prevent thousands of kids from being thrown into the juvenile justice system,” she said. “This is about what's best for our children.”
Meanwhile, key supporters of the current law declined to comment or could not be reached about the proposed changes.
The law has been credited with reducing absenteeism.
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 in the past school year.
However, other 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.
Gov. Dave Heineman supported the law to improve student achievement. Test scores show that missing school affects academic performance, and students who miss school frequently are at higher risk of falling behind and ultimately dropping out.
A spokeswoman said Friday that the governor would not comment on pending legislation.
Former Education Commissioner Roger Breed has retired. The new commissioner, Matt Blomstedt, could not be reached for comment.
Ashford said he hopes the changes will better target students at risk. Attendance problems can indicate other problems in children's lives, he said.
He also said that the changes would put more responsibility on schools to work with students and parents on attendance issues.
“We're putting more onus on the districts to have a policy that's clear,” he said. “We've gone back to trying to identify where intervention is most needed.”
The proposed changes are in a pair of amendments introduced by Ashford and Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha.
The amendments would:
» Allow districts to intervene with students based only on unexcused absences. Current law allows districts to use both excused and unexcused absences to intervene.
» Require schools to refer students with more than 20 unexcused absences to the county attorney. The 2010 law required referrals of students with more than 20 absences of any kind. The current amended law requires referrals if a student has more than 20 absences with at least one being unexcused.
» Eliminate a requirement that parents get a doctor's note in order for a sick child's absence to be excused.
» Create a new state council, which would include parent representatives, to review school attendance policies and recommend changes. The council could also recommend ways to address truancy and absenteeism on a statewide basis.
» Set up a $2 million grant program to support school district programs addressing truancy and absenteeism.
Vosik of the Nebraska Family Forum said she believes that the changes would leave Nebraska with a stronger emphasis on school attendance than it had five years ago.
“We didn't have a consistent, strong way to address kids who were truant before,” she said.