Nebraska’s big-government conservatives criminalize being home sick from school

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Last August, more than 20 families were forced to gather at the Douglas County Courthouse in Omaha for an exercise in mass humiliation that sounds like something out of the 17th Century or perhaps China’s Cultural Revolution.

One-by-one the families, parents and children, were called to the front of the room to be publicly cross-examined by a deputy county attorney.

Their crime (and, in Nebraska, it’s literally a crime): During the previous school year, the children had been home sick from school for more than 20 days. One family was struggling with cancer, two had children with mono. Another was trying to cope with the deaths of his mother, sister and uncle.

The Omaha World-Herald described the process: 

One-by-one over the course of two hours, the families were called to the front of the room. [Mary] Reynolds-East and her husband [whose son had suffered from mono and strep throat] were next to last.

Deputy Douglas County Attorney Jordan Boler told them they were called in because their son had missed more than 20 days for two years in a row. "That's a lot," she said.

Boler asked whether the couple had done something to prevent their son from getting sick again this year — a question that frustrated Reynolds-East. "There's not much we can do," she said later. "Give him vitamin C?"

If the family can’t somehow come up with a cure for strep throat and other diseases this year, they could face a lot worse than humiliation.

In a bizarre move, apparently unheard-of in any other state and diametrically opposed to what national experts consider best practice, Nebraska has erased the distinction between an excused and an unexcused absence from school. The very term “truancy” has been replaced by the term “excessive absences.”

Any student absent more than 20 days, for any reason, automatically is referred to the county attorney, who then is required to investigate the family. The county attorney has the option to prosecute the child as a status offender, and/or charge the parents with “educational neglect,” a finding that if substantiated would allow the state to place the child in foster care.

The percentage of Nebraska families likely to be affected is significant.  In just one year, Nebraska schools referred 9,178 students to county attorneys as a result of the new 20-day law.  That’s about three percent of Nebraska’s students.  Over the course of the 12 years that a child typically is in school, with an average of about two children per family, consider how many families will experience at least one year where some combination of illness and family emergency pushes a child over the 20-day limit.

Authorities keep saying they won’t really take away children or do anything similarly drastic in cases where all or most of the absences are “excused.”

But the World-Herald reports that KVC, the agency which, until recently, handled all child welfare case management and foster care in parts of Nebraska, said the number of families under its supervision because of “truancy” quadrupled since the new law took effect. The story doesn’t say how many, if any, are in foster care. But it does note that KVC itself wasn’t expecting this. A KVC official said in other states where they work, truancy is handled by schools.

In some parts of the state, it doesn’t take 20 absences to bring the state child welfare agency into a family’s life.  In metropolitan Omaha, as few as six absences leads to a referral to an intervention “team” that includes the child welfare agency.

The whole thing is typical of Nebraska, the home of big-government conservatism, where the state intrudes on child-rearing to a greater degree than almost any other.  As NCCPR documents in a study of Nebraska child welfare we’re releasing today, March 12  (available at www.nccprblog.org starting at noon), Nebraska takes away children and holds them in foster care at one of the highest rates in the nation. Indeed, if all of America were like Nebraska, there would be well over a million children trapped in foster care on any given day, instead of the actual 400,000.

The same mentality infuses the excessive absences law. Even the threat of invoking that law is harming families. During the mass humiliation session last August, the World-Herald reports, “one elementary-age girl clung to her mother, who explained the girl was terrified about what might happen to her. Illnesses had put the child over the 20-day mark.”  In other cases, parents are sending their children to school very sick, sometimes with fevers over 100 degrees, to avoid being referred to the county attorney.  In one case, a child who was old enough simply dropped out.

All that stress is bound to affect schoolwork. A parent whose daughter missed 22 days of school because of meningitis told a legislative hearing: “You’re taking my child, who is legitimately sick, through the court system and taking her from an A and B student to an F student.”

Opponents question whether the Nebraska policy violates various federal laws, since it does not exempt absences for religious holidays or to accommodate special education plans.

The Nebraska law also is contrary to best practice in child welfare and juvenile justice.  In 2009, one of the nation’s leading child welfare and juvenile justice think tanks, the Vera Institute of Justice, found that roughly half the states don’t even have “educational neglect” statutes. They leave it to the schools. The Institute recommended that, at least for older children, if child welfare agencies are not going to get out of educational neglect cases entirely, they should restrict the cases with which they get involved and reduce their role to offering genuinely voluntary help through a process called “differential response.” The study also cited a series of better options for dealing with actual truancy.

The Nebraska Legislature appears unwilling to go nearly that far.  The most they seem willing to do is consider giving school districts more discretion before referring cases to county attorneys.

 By the way, remember that public humiliation session at the courthouse in Omaha last August?  In order to comply with the order to attend the session, some of the children had to miss school.

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org