Bills would revise student truancy provisions

The Judiciary Committee heard testimony Feb. 13 on three bills that would revise the state’s new student truancy provisions.

In 2010, the Legislature passed a bill requiring school districts to report cases to a county attorney when a student has been absent at least 20 days per year, whether the absences are excused or unexcused.

LB933, introduced by Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, would eliminate the requirement that a county attorney then file a complaint against a parent or guardian of a child who is absent more than 20 days. Instead, the bill would require a meeting between a county attorney and the student’s school to decide if further action is necessary to address his or her attendance. If further action were deemed necessary, the school and county attorney would meet with the child’s parents.

Current reporting requirements have decreased student truancy in schools, Ashford said, but district policies are not consistent and some districts are not excusing students who are ill. The bill would ensure that schools would determine what constitutes an excused absence, he said, and also would address some parents’ concerns about consulting with county attorneys.

Under LB917, introduced by Bellevue Sen. Abbie Cornett, absences for documented illness or military deployment activities would not count towards the 20-day reporting requirements currently in statute.

Military children who miss school to see their parents deploy have been considered unexcused from school, Cornett said, which violates the federal Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children that was designed to remove barriers imposed on children of military families who move frequently.

The bill would clarify that such absences are excused in order to receive federal funding under the compact, she said.

LB1165, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Tony Fulton, would remove the requirements that county attorneys collaborate with school districts in the development of truancy policies.

Under the bill, districts would be allowed to develop written policies regarding excessive absenteeism and define truancy in relation to their own policies. If a student is absent more than five days in one quarter or 10 days per school year, the district would review the case, meet with the student’s parent or guardian and could file a report with the county attorney.

Fulton said school districts should have the authority to tailor their policies to their students’ needs prior to involving a county attorney. The bill represents an attempt to collaborate with parents while addressing excessive absenteeism, he said.

Douglas County Commissioner Mary Ann Borgeson testified in support of the bills, saying she has received many calls from concerned parents.

“[The current requirements] are very intrusive of government into the lives of our families,” Borgeson said. “They take away a parent’s right to decide what is best for their children.”

Warren Whitted, a member of the Nebraska State Bar Association, testified in support of LB933. The bill would make subtle changes that would make the process of notifying parents less intimidating, Whitted said.

Roger Breed, commissioner of the Nebraska Department of Education, testified in opposition to the bills, saying students who were absent for more than 20 days had significantly lower test scores than their peers who had better attendance.

Furthermore, Breed said, the number of students who were truant more than 20 days in the 2010-11 school year decreased by over 15 percent.

“It is clear that the attention of school authorities, parents and county attorneys on school attendance is making a difference,” he said. “Let’s give it a couple more years to work and track the data—then students and families will be better served.”

Alicia Henderson of the Lancaster County Attorney’s Office provided neutral testimony on the bills, saying the law passed in 2010 brought well deserved attention to excessive absenteeism in schools.

“We believe at this point in time we need to let the system play out based on the law we have now,” Henderson said. “Let’s keep the status quo for at least another year to monitor the effects of the [new requirements].”

Kevin Riley, superintendent of Gretna Public Schools, also provided neutral testimony on the bills, saying county attorneys have been involved in the reporting process for 30 years. County attorneys have such large workloads that in the past it would take months before a truancy case would be addressed, Riley said, and by that time students were dropping out of school.

“What has happened with the current law is that it has forced us to work closer together [with county attorneys and parents],” Riley said, “and family advocates are reporting that attendance is improving and children are behaving better at home.”

LB933 was advanced from committee to general file on a 5-0 vote Feb. 13. No immediate action was taken on the other bills.

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