LINCOLN — Nebraska Education Commissioner Roger Breed is recommending against changing the state's controversial truancy law.
He told state lawmakers Wednesday that the law appears to be getting students back in school and should stay as it is for at least two more years to see whether it can produce further improvement in attendance.
But a Millard-area mother who heads a parents group urged the Legislature's Judiciary Committee to restore a more traditional definition of truancy.
Stephanie Morgan, head of the Nebraska Family Forum, said the change would preserve parental authority without undoing the progress that has been made in addressing truancy.
Both spoke at a roundtable discussion on truancy and other juvenile justice issues.
The panel also included school officials from Omaha and Gretna and county attorneys from Douglas, Hall and Saunders Counties.
The discussion was open to invited guests only.
The Judiciary Committee is looking at possible changes in the law, which has generated numerous complaints from parents since it went into effect in the last school year.
The law 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.
On Wednesday, the attorneys and school officials universally praised the law and said any problems are being worked out with practice.
Cara Riggs, principal of Omaha South High School, said the law has made a difference for South students and their parents. Being able to involve the legal system early on has made school and parent efforts more effective in getting students to class.
Last year, after the law took effect, South High saw the biggest improvement in attendance of any large high school statewide.
“From the school and family perspective, I want to say, ‘Thank you very much for helping,' ” Riggs said.
But Morgan said the law has subjected to legal scrutiny families whose choices should not have to be questioned.
At times the discussion sounded like a battle of anecdotes.
State Sen. Brenda Council of Omaha told of getting a call from one mother complaining about her child's absences not being properly recorded as such.
It turned out, Council said, the mother was excusing her child any time the girl did not want to attend school. Further investigation showed that the situation was complicated by bullying and other factors, none of which involved the girl's health.
But Sen. Tyson Larson of O'Neill told of a girl in his district who had truancy charges filed against her. The girl went over the 20-day mark after she appeared in a national rodeo competition.
He said he is concerned about how the law affects students who have opportunities to participate in activities outside school.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, the committee chairman, said he will be talking with other senators in the coming days about how to address concerns without losing the focus on getting students to school.
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