Skipping school seemed like a little thing, just one missed day at a time.
But by the time Amos Gray V had piled up more than 30 days of absences last year, his truancy had turned into a big deal. He didn't just fail some of his classes and get scolded by his mother.
He also earned a court summons and a judge's steely-eyed scrutiny.
Amos didn't enjoy being pulled into juvenile court. His mom was scared that her son would be taken away. And their uncomfortable encounter with the legal system reinforced Amos' resolve never to stumble into truancy again.
"You just dig a hole that you can't get out of," said Amos, a senior at Omaha South High.
A tough, controversial new anti-truancy law that requires county prosecutors to examine chronic absenteeism played a major role in putting Amos back on track.
Some parents have taken issue with the crackdown, particularly for children struggling with health problems.
But the law has helped spur Amos to attend school regularly, do well in his courses and stay on pace to graduate on time in May.
Amos' prsonal turnaround is one sign of continuing progress at South High, which faces bigger attendance problems and larger demographic challenges than any Omaha-area high school.
Last year, 60 percent of South students missed more than 10 days of school, and 32 percent missed more than 20 days. By contrast, only 5 percent of Millard West students were absent more than 20 days.
On average, 10.6 percent of South students were absent from classrooms each day. That's more than twice the absentee rate at, say, Westside or Millard North.
But as bad as the Omaha South attendance problems were last year, they were improved compared to a year earlier. In 2009-10, South's absentee rate had been 12.8 percent. And 38 percent of the school's students that year missed more than 20 days.
Nearly 75 percent of Nebraska's school buildings saw lower absentee rates last year, after the tougher absentee law went into effect. South improved more than any other Omaha-area school and more than any large high school statewide.
State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, who toured South High recently, said he was impressed with South High's progress amid its challenges, crediting the can-do attitude of Principal Cara Riggs and her staff.
"It's the Miracle on South 24th Street," Ashford said. "It could have gone the other way."
Riggs said it shouldn't be surprising that her school's students still miss more days than youths at other schools. Her students are more likely to be kept out of school to help translate for an immigrant parent or care for a younger sibling, for example, and more likely to be affected by poverty and other problems that can disrupt their lives.
But Riggs said South educators don't accept truancy as inevitable. Instead, she said, they see it as a problem that must be overcome so their students can improve academically. She said she often hears the lament: "If they'd just be here, we could teach them."
Riggs said South officials have made combating truancy a priority. Counselors and other school officials monitor absences and are quick to contact parents when there's a problem.
Officials at South want to ensure immediate consequences when students skip school. They've even extended that mindset this year to the related problem of tardiness.
The tougher state law and the increased role of prosecutors and judges make a big difference, Riggs said. She said enhanced oversight demonstrates that the broader community — not just the education system — is willing to help address the problem.
It's one thing for a principal or a counselor to urge a student to come to school.
It's entirely different, Riggs said, for Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Elizabeth Crnkovich to say, "You will, or else."
Amos got that message this past summer from Crnkovich after missing 33 days in his junior year.
His mother, Ann Gray, said she hadn't been able to find a way to make Amos attend school every day. A single mother who headed for work early in the morning, she woke Amos before she left. But that didn't guarantee he'd get to school.
"He wasn't out running the streets," she said. "He just wouldn't get out of bed."
While Amos was smart enough to score above average on the ACT college entrance exam, his absences undermined his schoolwork, and he wound up with D's and F's.
Lectures didn't help, and there wasn't anything to ground him from. His mother was frustrated.
"I felt horrible," she said. "I felt like the biggest failure."
When school officials called her at work about Amos' absences, Gray didn't cover for him with excuses.
"He needed to take the consequences," she said.
Knowing that, however, didn't make her feel any better or less panicked when she and Amos had to go to court. Mother and son watched as one youth at the mass truancy hearing was led away in handcuffs.
Judge Crnkovich was stern with Amos, but she seemed to care. There were court-ordered counseling sessions and monthly hearings to review his progress on attending school, earning good grades and making up credits for the classes he had failed last year.
Last month, Amos reported back to the judge with written praise from his South High teachers. He took along evidence of his 3.28 GPA this fall — more than twice as high as his cumulative average for his first three years of high school.
Amos had missed just six days of school this fall, three of them with a doctor's note.
Crnkovich stunned him in the courtroom by giving him a round of applause.
Ann Gray said the court process was scary, but she believes it helped Amos.
Ashford, who has led anti-truancy efforts in the Legislature, said the early signs of progress at South and other schools show the value of having more people paying closer attention to attendance, from school counselors to county attorneys.
"There are lots of eyeballs on these kids," he said.
Before the 2010 law and its 2011 revision, he said, it was easier for truant children to fall through the cracks and amass lots of absences before anyone took action.
Now, county attorneys must review cases where students miss more than 20 days of school, even if the reasons include illness or other legitimate excuses.
Some parents have called that approach too heavy-handed. They say it ensnares too many sick children and substitutes government oversight for parental discretion.
In one case recently reported in The World-Herald, a 13-year-old girl who is an A and B student and a student council member faces truancy charges in Sarpy County Juvenile Court after missing 27 school days last year. Her mother said all the absences were health-related.
Ashford said he's willing to refine the law to address concerns, but he maintains that the stronger threat of law enforcement makes everyone more vigilant about truancy. He said it sends a signal to students, parents and schools that they should track absences and address issues well before county attorneys get involved.
"The goal is not to prosecute anybody," he said. "The goal is to help them."
Amos Gray said he was helped by the toughness and encouragement of Judge Crnkovich, whom he plans to invite to his high school graduation. And he appreciates the support he has received from school officials.
But the real change, he says, came in his own thinking. Now, he says, he understands that he needs to do well in high school in order to go on to college and have a successful career.
"I've matured a lot," Amos said. "I'm just doing what I have to do to make sure I have a good future."
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