New program helps fight truancy


August 2nd, 2011

Omaha, NE – As students around the metro prepare to go back to school, city, county and state officials are drawing a united front-outlining a new plan to tackle truancy and keep kids in school.

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It’s a plan that builds on an older plan. Last year, LB 800 was signed into law. That enacted sweeping reforms in truancy prevention and juvenile justice – such as, if a child was truant for more than 20 days of the school year, the county attorney would get involved, and the parents and children might find themselves in court or facing fines. That led to an influx of truancy cases that county attorneys had to sort through. In Douglas County, Attorney Don Kleine said his office saw over 3,000 referrals last year.

“So it’s somewhat overwhelming,” Kleine said. “But what we’re doing in that regard is setting up a system to handle those cases to get those children back into school as quickly as we can, without having to hit the court system.”

Gov. Heineman speaks with students at the Jesuit Middle School in Omaha.(Photo courtesy State of Nebraska)

The new plan targets students in the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, which faces an achievement gap among minority and poor students. Flanked by superintendents from schools throughout the metro, Governor Dave Heineman, said officials have forged new partnerships with the Department of Health and Human Services, after-school programs and law enforcement agencies to intervene earlier, and on the ground floor of the problem.

Heineman said, “From the bigger perspective, I think what you’re going to see is a focus intervening early at the school building level, working with the parents, that’ll be the major difference, and that’s where the focus should be.”

Early intervention and prevention was a critical part of LB 800. So what’s different with this new approach? Omaha Public Schools Superintendent John Mackiel said an important piece is connecting parents and teachers to outside resources and allowing the various agencies to share information about the students. It’s a part of the plan the group has named GOALS.

“Research shows that nearly all unexcused absences are related to issues outside the control of the school,” said Mackiel. “Issues of family transportation, lack of medical care for members of the family, lack of daycare for a sibling in the family, homelessness all can contribute to reasons young people are not in school. So GOALS brings together a group of experts in the area of local government to analyze what we know about the challenges of students attending school.”

One of the simplest changes that could make a big difference is the inclusion of a check box on the school’s truancy forms. Before referring to the attorney’s office, teachers and administrators can now check a box if the reason for the absence was medical. That should help prevent kids with long-term illnesses from winding up before prosecutors. Heineman said that’s just common sense.

“We have an abundance of it in Nebraska,” said Heineman. “These superintendents and the people who work for them, just use good old Nebraska common sense. Ok, some kid misses 20 days of school, he’s got straight A’s. That’s not really the kid I’m worried about today, ok? I’m worried about the student, he or she, who is consistently missing more than 20 days for a variety of other reasons, and that’s the vast majority that we’re trying to tackle.”

The Superintendent at South Sarpy Schools, Chuck Chevalier, said the new plan, like the old, is a work in progress. It’s the best they have today, he said, but next summer, they’ll fine tune it further. The goal remains, however, keep as many kids as possible in school, out of trouble and out of court – now, or later in life.

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