LINCOLN — State lawmakers may not have heard of Jennifer Carter and her family's struggles with Nebraska's new truancy law.
But a flood of complaints from families like hers has caught lawmakers' attention.
As the new legislative session approaches, several state senators are looking for ways to change the law so it better targets children of concern without pulling others into the legal net.
Even the chief architect of the state's truancy crackdown, State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, said he is open to options for change.
"I want to be sensitive to what parents are saying, no question," he said.
Yet Ashford remains adamant that he does not want to return to the days when too many children were allowed to miss school without anyone paying attention.
The new law was intended to identify children at risk of failing school, dropping out and becoming a burden on society.
He sees signs it is working to get more children to school.
During the 2009-10 school year, before the new law, nearly 22,000 public school students missed more than 20 days of school. That was 7.8 percent of the students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Last year, after the law had gone into effect, the number dropped to about 18,000, or 6.3 percent.
"I'm absolutely convinced we have changed the lives of a number of children," Ashford said.
But the law also has had unintended consequences because it moved away from a focus on truancy, or unexcused absences, to a broader focus on "excessive absenteeism."
Under the law, school districts must report to the county attorney all students who accumulate more than 20 absences in a school year, regardless of the reasons for the absences.
It also shifted responsibility from schools to the legal system for responding to absences.
The result has been cases like Carter's 13-year-old daughter, an A and B student and student council member who faces truancy charges in Sarpy County Juvenile Court after missing 27 school days last year.
Carter said all of the absences were health-related. Her daughter suffers severe allergies, which cause excruciating headaches and leave her vulnerable to repeat infections.
She said the problem of infections has increased this year because parents fearful of the new law are sending their sick children to school.
The truancy charges remain pending, even after Carter provided the court with doctors' notes explaining her daughter's medical problems.
"I never thought this would happen to us," she said.
Sens. Beau McCoy and Scott Price of Omaha are working with Ashford on ways to prevent such cases, but they have not decided on an approach yet.
One possibility might be to look at a student's school performance in deciding whether legal action is needed.
Price said he likes that idea because it is hard to argue that the state should intervene when a child is doing well in school.
"What's the goal of public education?" he asked. "It's not baby-sitting. It's about preparing students for the workforce."
He also wants the law to take into account the special circumstances of military families.
McCoy hopes to find a way to distinguish children at risk from those who are doing OK but may have health problems.
He said he wants to be able to reassure parents that the law isn't just about big government.
"It's a balancing act between doing as much as we can to educate our kids and doing what's best for our families," he said.
One idea might be to go back to a law focused on whether an absence is excused but requiring legal intervention before 20 unexcused days. That's the approach used in many states.
Ashford said he's willing to look at all options, including setting definitions of excused absences and at-risk students.
He's also interested in having the Douglas County truancy diversion team meet with students and parents in schools. Now, families are summoned to mass meetings at the courthouse during which cases are reviewed and interventions ordered.
Ashford said he will consult with Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, State Education Commissioner Roger Breed and Omaha-area school superintendents before proposing any changes in the law.
They, along with Gov. Dave Heineman, have been some of the chief backers of the new law.
The governor's position remains that "the law must be implemented with Nebraska common sense," said spokeswoman Jen Rae Hein. She said the governor continues to work closely with Ashford.
Sen. Tony Fulton of Lincoln has been working with the Nebraska Family Forum, a parents group concerned about the truancy law. He said their concerns could be solved by simply inserting the word "unexcused" into the law.
But he said he is waiting to see what Ashford comes up with before deciding whether to offer his own proposal this January.
"If there's a need for me to introduce a bill, it will get introduced," Fulton said. "There's got to be some room for the judgment of good parents."
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