Community organizations, county groups, and schools across the metro are coming together to combat increasing numbers of truancy cases.
In Douglas County alone, truancy numbers are up consistently over the past three years. From 961 cases during 2014-2015; 1243 cases from 2015-2016; and 1436 cases from 2016-2017.
According to the Nebraska Department of Education, the history of the states truancy law has undergone changes over the past several years. In 2010, there was a very controversial law that was very strict and required the county attorney's involvement when a student had 20 absences for any reason. In 2011, lawmakers tweaked the law and provided some funding for programming to fight truancy. In 2012, it was amended again to excuse kids that were sick those 20 days. The law was revised again in 2014 to its current status. The big difference is the move from county attorney involvement being necessary in 2010 to the county attorney being an option after the school has exhausted all reasonable means as it is now through the 2014 legislation. There is still the 20 day rule. Originally it was the trigger for county attorney involvement, now it is one of the triggers where a school can file a report.
There is a penalty listed for truancy violations. According to statute a person could face a class III misdemeanor.
"Last year was a lot because I had a class that I didn't like or something or just I didn't want to go to it." Amir Wiggins, a now senior at Westside High School told 3 News Now. "But at the end of it it turned out bad because I failed the class and I regret doing it I regret skipping a lot actually like if I could go back I wouldn't skip."
Wiggins is by no means alone.
According to the latest numbers from the United Way, more than 13,000 students in Douglas, Sarpy and Pottawattamie county public schools missed more than 10% of days of attendance in the 2015 - 2016 school year. Of those, 740 were elementary school students.
Districts with the highest rates of chronic absenteeism are:
- Omaha Public Schools (8,031 students/16% of school membership)
- Council Bluffs Community Schools (1,195 students/12% of school membership)
- Douglas County West Community Schools (83 students/10% of school membership)
- Ralston Public Schools (261 students/8% of school membership)
- Bellevue Public Schools (662 students/7% of school membership)
However, stakeholders are looking to tackle the issue before it becomes a major problem. More than twenty school districts and area nonprofits have formed the School Based Attendance Coalition Membership. They include:
- Bellevue Public Schools
- Council Bluffs Public Schools
- Millard Public Schools
- Omaha Public Schools
- Ralston Public Schools
- Westside Community School District
- Papillion LaVista Schools
- Region 6
- Operation Youth Success
- Juvenile Assessment Center
- Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties
- Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Midlands
- Boys Town
- Center for Holistic Development
- Child Saving Institute
- Completely Kids
- D2 Center
- GOALS Center
- Latino Center of the Midlands
- Midlands Mentoring Partnership (MMP)
- Omni Behavioral Health
- Partnership 4 Kids
- Project Harmony-Connections Program
- Raise Me to Read
- The Hope Center for Kids
- Urban League of Nebraska
The coalition is handing out attendance kits for area schools. The toolkit includes posters, school banners, parent flyers, stickers, and magnets with positive attendance messaging, a social media plan for Facebook and Twitter, and special events in the community. They're also planning a number of events. An Attendance Awareness Campaign Kickoff will be held at Tom Hanafan River's Edge Park in Council Bluffs on September 1st, bringing together area mayors, superintendents, school administrators, juvenile justice and child welfare agencies, nonprofits, students and families from Iowa and Nebraska to unite around improving school attendance rates.
"What research shows is that September and the beginning of school year is really how attendance habits are set." Melissa Mayo, with the Coalition says.
The solutions don't end there. County Attorney Don Kleine says he meets each fall with superintendents about cases, and plans to do so again this October.
"We try to problem solve. Sometimes is it a simple fix for the schools to take care of. Other times, it involves resources," Kleine said.
Under state law, each district can set their own attendance policies. The Department of Ed doesn't monitor truancy, but does have requirements on how many instructional hours a school needs to have to be accredited with the state. A public high school needs 1080 instructional hours every year, an elementary school needs 1032 and a kindergarten needs 400. It's up the schools and districts to decide time requirements for students.
As for schools, each truancy "case" may need to be handled on case by case basis. For example,Westside high school principal Jay Opperman, a parent himself, says it's an balance of managing numbers and getting at the root of what might cause a student to miss.
"We try and at first give the students the ability to manage their time. And then if we see someone with concerns then will sweep in and say hey we're going to assign your time now you're not managing it very well," Opperman said.