Nebraska passes truancy law to try to reduce juvenile justice system involvement of youth,
LINCOLN, Neb. — Public school students returning to Nebraska classrooms this month should be less likely to miss class without a legitimate excuse under a new state law, officials said Tuesday.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman announced a coordination plan for 11 Omaha-area Learning Community schools in Ralston, flanked by state officials, county attorneys and the state senator who sponsored the bill.
The new state law, which expands existing truancy rules, is designed to improve coordination among school officials, prosecutors, and social workers to keep students from accumulating too many unexcused absences. The governor said the law aims to help school districts intervene early, before students are forced into the juvenile justice system.
"It's a very simple concept," Heineman said after the announcement. "We know what's happening. When you miss school, you're not learning. We're trying to put the focus at the school building level, with the parents and the principals and the teachers, to make sure our students miss fewer days of school."
The law by Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford is designed to improve classroom achievement by reducing the number of unexcused student absences. Ashford said the bill moves Nebraska "from taking a district-by-district approach to a more statewide priority focus on excessive absenteeism."
"We pride ourselves on being a pro-education state, and we have these assets that are available to children every day, free of charge," Ashford said. "That's a huge investment in state tax and property tax dollars."
The law requires probation officers, social workers and school officials to communicate when students miss more than 10 school days per academic year. It also requires school districts to set policies for excessive absenteeism due to a serious illness, and will create a grant fund for court-appointed special advocates who work with troubled and abused youth.
Truancies have plagued Nebraska for years, most notably in high-poverty areas in Omaha and other parts of the state. Nearly 22,000 Nebraska students missed more than 20 days of school last year, and more than half of the absences were high school students. One analysis found truant 11th graders scored about 30 points lower on a statewide reading assessment than those who missed fewer than 20 days.
In his State of the Judiciary speech to lawmakers last year, Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican highlighted truancies as one of the judicial branch's top priorities. The Office of Probation Administration has moved in recent years to reduce the number of children entering the juvenile justice system because of repeated unexcused absences.
Jerry Hoffman, a lobbyist for the Nebraska State Education Association, said the changes to clamp down on truancies were driven largely by Ashford's efforts to push the bill through the Legislature. Ashford introduced the bill, LB 463, on Heineman's behalf.
A related law approved last year addressed other truancy and juvenile justice issues, such as sealing juvenile court records to eliminate barriers to future scholarships or college admissions.
The law is projected to cost $200,000 for the fiscal year that began July 1, and the following budget year.
"If we aggressively implement what we've put in place here, we'll save money and can reallocate resources toward more academic programming," Ashford said.