Council stands by truancy ordinance
Home-school parents voice concerns
BY DAN TACKETT
Published Wednesday, November 28, 2007
A group of parents who home-school their children found little support Tuesday for the changes they want in a truancy ordinance pending before the Lincoln City Council.
Alderman Marty Neitzel, who said she has spent a year working on the ordinance, expressed surprise at the number of suggested revisions in the proposed ordinance, which had originally been drafted by city attorney Bill Bates.
“You told me (previously) you had two minor things” to be changed, Neitzel told Brian Messner, one of about a dozen parents who attended a city council ordinance committee meeting. “You’ve redone the whole thing.”
Bates said the home-school faction’s suggested changes would “seriously dilute the intention of the ordinance” and also dilute the definition of a truant.
In their version of the ordinance, the parents removed the word “student” several times and replaced it with “truant.”
Bates said he is especially concerned with the home-school parents’ desire to change the definition of a truant. All students – including those who are home-schooled and those enrolled in public or private schools – “are all subject to compulsory attendance,” Bates said.
Students become truants, he said when they have an unexcused absence from attending class.
But according to the group’s suggested definition, a student could not be labeled a truant unless he or she has been previously identified as such by Jean Anderson, superintendent of the Regional Office of Education, or by school administrators.
“If they’re not on Jean’s list, they’re not a truant,” Bates said, referring to that key point in the parents’ revisions. “That’s not what I consider a minor change.”
Ron Denlinger offered an explanation of the changes he and other home-schooled parents desire in the proposed law.
“We want an ordinance that targets truants,” said Denlinger. “Truants are clearly identified. Let’s go after them.”
But he said parents also want an ordinance that “protects the freedom of responsible students.”
Commenting today, Denlinger said the organized group of parents was frustrated by Tuesday’s meeting, which, he added, was the first time members had the opportunity to meet with the entire city council ordinance committee.
“I feel we got slapped in the face,” he said.
Denlinger said the group fears the ordinance will essentially be enforced as “a daytime curfew” on school-age children.
Home schooling, he said, is not required to follow traditional school hours. Because of parents’ work schedules, the daily home schooling process often times is far removed from traditional class schedules.
“School might not kick in until in the evening,” he said.
Denlinger and other parents fear the ordinance will encourage police officers to stop and question their children if they are seen in public places during the hours public school is routinely in session.
“That means paper routes can’t start until 3 in the afternoon. Children can’t go out and walk the dog” without risking being stopped by a police officer, he said.
Denlinger said the tone of Tuesday’s meeting probably “characterized us as unreasonable people,” which, he added, is simply not true.
“We just want a truancy ordinance that truly targets truants,” he said.
Anderson, who said her office’s three-county truancy program now includes 400 students, is supporting the council’s proposed ordinance as written by Bates. In fact, the ordinance notes that Anderson’s office and “various school officials” had requested the council adopt the measure. It also states the Illinois School Code and Juvenile Court Act procedures on truancy matters are “time consuming and expensive and have proven to be ineffective in stemming the tide of truancy in the schools within the city.”
Anderson said her office operates on a stricter basis than the state truancy law, which specifies a student must have 18 unexcused absences before being declared a truant.
“We don’t wait 18 days,” Anderson said. “We send out letters after five days.”
A second letter is sent when a student continues to accumulate unexcused absences – around eight to 10, Anderson said – and finally, if the problem persists, students and parents are summoned to a hearing before a truancy review board.
“We aren’t waiting for a child to be deemed a truant,” Anderson said.
Bates, responding to the home-school parents group, said the city’s ordinance “is not something that came up overnight.” He said he used the city of Rockford’s highly praised ordinance on truancy as a model for the Lincoln proposal.
Bates’ ordinance also establishes penalties, including fines and court-mandated community service work, for violators. Parents of truant children younger than 10 would be liable and subject to the ordinance’s penalties.
Neitzel recommended the council approve Bates’ ordinance with none of the home-school parents’ suggestions included. She did follow Anderson’s sole suggestion – to expand the list of officials who can issue truancy citations to include a truancy caseworker from Lincoln Community High School.
Others with the authority to issue citations would be city police officers and truancy caseworkers from Anderson’s office.
The council could vote on the measure at its meeting Monday.
Of course the Board doesn’t really use any logic to justify the unchanged bill, merely an appeal to authority. That being said, it seems like it would be pretty simple to leave all of the language as-is and just add a sentence at the end that says, “No child who is the student of a homeschool operating pursuant to Illinois law shall be considered a truant for purposes of this ordinance.”
Lawyers aren’t all bad, you know.