With Reckless Abandon: For students, North Platte's Brandy Buscher avoids the path of least resistance

With Reckless Abandon: For students, North Platte's Brandy Buscher avoids the path of least resistance

(Photo Courtesy of I Love Public Schools)

By Tyler Dahlgren

There’s 30 miles between Sutherland and North Platte, a stretch Brandy Buscher travels every day. Eastbound to work in the big town each morning. And westward towards home in the small town each night.

Thirty miles, to decompress from the day, in thirty minutes. On some days, that’s all she does. She enjoys the calmness. And, on some days, the really tough and heavy ones, she cries a little.

“And sometimes, I just go home and hold my youngest,” Buscher, the mother of three boys, said. “We just sit on the couch and snuggle and I close the blinds.”

On these nights, the ones that follow the most taxing days, she reaches home emotionally spent. The next morning, though, Buscher always wakes up motivated. Ready to take on homelessness, drugs and absenteeism. She’s recharged.

Ready to fight for kids with what she calls a “reckless abandon”.

Brandy Buscher is Student Services Coordinator for North Platte Public Schools, but the job title doesn’t begin to tell her story. Unlike that flat stretch of 1-80, her professional journey has been anything but straightforward. Her career trajectory is very likely one-of-a-kind.

She made the unconventional, and immeasurably rewarding, crossover from criminal justice to education. And, if you talk to the folks who witness the difference she makes in the lives of kids in North Platte, it’s been remarkable to watch unfold.

Thirteen years ago, Buscher worked as a liaison between the Omaha Police Department and the Douglas County Attorney’s Office. With a degree in criminal justice from the University of Nebraska-Kearney, working in schools was not part of the plan.

That changed when Buscher and her husband, a stock broker, made the decision to raise their family in Western Nebraska, a choice which shifted their careers dramatically. He ended up at a power plant and she became the Dean of Students at North Platte’s Adams Middle School. She admits it was a bit of a bizarre landing place.

“It was a huge shift, for both of us,” Buscher recalls. “At the time, the sentiment from the school was ‘We just really need someone to work with kids and their families to get them on track.’ And it really wasn’t about suspending kids or punishing kids. It was more about interacting with families and building relationships.”

So, for four years, that’s what she did. When Adams grew large enough, the school hired an assistant principal and Buscher moved into the new role of Community Liaison. She started to spend time in courtrooms and with Health and Human Services. She was the go-between for any agencies in the area dealing with youth and the school system.

“Rather than calling the schools or reaching out to principals, they just called me to see what was going on with kids,” Buscher said. “Through that position, I built a good relationship with our County Attorney. She included me on a case review team. We meet once a month and review every single child abuse case that comes through Lincoln County.”

Buscher totally invested herself in the reasons why children weren’t in school. Through her work, she recognized that when it came to communicating with the County Attorney and Lincoln County judges, several pieces of vital information were being lost in translation. Disappearing in the mix and skewing the narrative.

“They were hearing a lot of things like ‘Oh, they’re great. They’re doing fine. There’s no problems,’” she said. “And all of a sudden, I’m at the table saying ‘No, they’re not coming to school. Or, when they are here, they’re exhausted.’ More pieces of the puzzle for our kids started to align.”

Eventually, Buscher became North Platte Public Schools’ Homeless Liaison, too, in addition to Teammates Coordinator. In Lincoln County, there’s a high number of abuse cases due to methamphetamine. Correlatively, the number of homeless youth in the area began to grow.

She spearheaded, along with staff at the high school and connections she’d made throughout the community, the creation of a food pantry, a one-stop shop for students in need to access not only food, but clothing, toiletry items, a washer and dryer…you name it.

“We literally started by going to churches on Sundays and talking to congregations and just asking if they would be willing to donate,” Buscher, who remembers staring at the empty closet in the school terrified of the idea failing, said. “I was timid at first. I remember thinking ‘I don’t want to start this because we’re not going to have enough.’”

It’s 2019 now, near the end of the first semester, and the pantry is housed not in a closet, but in a classroom, and there sits $40,000 in a bank account used purely for youth services.

The operation is supported completely by donations.

It was made possible by relationships.

After a few years, Buscher held a solid understanding of what was going on in the homes of troubled students. When the district did away with its truancy officer, those responsibilities found a spot on her crowded plate.

Buscher knew about the prevalent meth use in the area and the lack of resources in place to help students withstand the harsh ripple effects left in the wake of the drug’s destructive path. She was already dealing with it every day.

“What I learned was that it was pretty average for a kid in our title schools to miss about 10 days of school throughout the year, which is crazy,” Buscher said. “In some of our schools, 85 percent of our kids were missing more than five days.”

Buscher set a goal. It didn’t call for perfect attendance. That goal would be hollow, and, given their starting point, unrealistic. The initiative aimed to get kids under five days of absence.

It took on the catchy name “Dare to Go Five Below”, and it was marketed to the community.

The district partnered with different community businesses. A North Platte bank, for example, could sponsor a specific school and prizes, pep rallies and more prizes were offered as rewards for marked improvement.

The first year was just okay. The district saw some improvement, but nothing drastic.

“Then I sat down with our county attorney and we started talking about compulsory education bonds and statutes and how that all works,” she recalled. “We started to look at different ways we could begin to hold parents accountable.”

At first, Buscher was hesitant to move on the idea. She knew it wasn’t going to be well-received in all circles and she knew her future wouldn’t include very many gold medals in popularity contests. But this wasn’t about popularity contests. It was about the kids. With reckless abandon, they moved forward.

“I have a six-year-old who’s not coming to school, and when I go to the house, mom isn’t even out of bed yet, you know, nobody is awake,” she explained. “There’s no attempt to get this kid to school. We asked ourselves ‘What can we do?’ She (the county attorney) started charging parents with a violation of compulsory education. The parents were getting criminal citations. They were expected to come to court.”

That November, four parents didn’t show up in court for their compulsory education tickets. They were arrested and their pictures ran in the newspaper and online.

North Platte Public Schools was serious about this. Brandy Buscher was serious about this. The district’s attendance numbers shifted in a big way.

In one of the elementary schools, for instance, the number of children who missed more than 20 days shrunk from 60 to 30 in one year. The next year, that number dwindled to 12.

These days, chronic absenteeism, which was once sky high, is under 10 percent. In the five years since starting the attendance initiatives, schools where 55 percent of kids were missing more than five days are now seeing 65 percent of kids missing less than five days.

“So we did a complete flip-flop, and our superintendent is great and likes to tote the program,” said Buscher. “Just as important as the program was the message we sent to parents saying ‘You are going to get in trouble if you can’t get your kids to school.’”

Out here in Western Nebraska, everybody is held accountable to everyone, Buscher said. You can’t afford to burn bridges, because nobody wants to work in a silo. Before, it was the school’s responsibility and the school’s responsibility alone to educate kids.

If kids didn’t show up, then it was the school’s fault. It was a helpless feeling, which has now turned into a fierce all-hands-on-deck effort to change. And change they have.

“We’ll help,” Buscher said. “I’ve dragged teenagers out of bed. We’ll help, certainly, but it’s on them now. They’re the parent. They need to get their kids to school, and if they don’t, well there are going to be repercussions. We really don’t have to do that much anymore. It’s rare that we have to charge a parent now.”

Buscher isn’t proud of putting parents in jail. That’s not how this works. Nobody wants that.

“We were at a really critical point in our schools where we needed to take a stand,” she said. “We were losing kids to absenteeism pretty fast, and improvement wasn’t happening for us.”

For every one parent who, as Buscher not-so-gently puts it, hates her guts, there are five or six who share in a mutually respectful relationship. Often times, families are provided with services they are in dire need of. When it comes to the future of a child, even the most troubled parents eventually come around.

“Especially in a blue-collar community, if you can be upfront, direct and honest with people, they’ll usually respond to accountability,” Buscher said. “They respond to the fact that I’m looking out for their kids. I’m doing this for the betterment of their child.”

Buscher has had to testify in court. She’s had to speak on custody issues and whether a child should be sent to a facility. It’s not easy. Very few of her days ever are.

“But if you stick around long enough to see that entire picture, to see that child come back and do well and gain the skills they need for a bright future, then it’s just motivation to continue to do the job,” Buscher said. “For me, the most rewarding part of this is to watch a child who is struggling tremendously, maybe not reading and not functioning in a school setting, get the structure and support at home, at a safe place, turn it around. They start learning. They start reading. They’re no longer running out of the building or causing harm to themselves or others. It becomes clear that this is what is right for the kid. It’s kind of a form of tough love in a way, but we have to do it.”

There are specific cases that continue to drive Buscher to this day. Like the kindergartner whose behavior became so erratic that the school threw up every red flag it owned and brought the mother in, who showed up under the influence herself.

As the child’s behavior worsened along with his attendance, Buscher filed a truancy and made an attempt to visit the house but was denied entry. There were cameras everywhere outside of the house. More red flags.

Finally, after a struggle and a meeting with the county attorney, the school’s resource officer was sent to retrieve the child and take him to Bridge of Hope, to the safety of protective custody. A hair follicle test revealed the boy to be on methamphetamine. He wasn’t just exposed. It was in his system.

Four adults living in that home, which had loaded guns on the couches, scales, money and a kitchen to cook meth, were federally indicted and taken to prison.

The child was placed in temporary foster care and, within a week he was back in the classroom, learning and reading with his peers. Now, he’s living with a relative out of state and doing amazing.

“That whole situation, for me, really has been a motivator to not take the path of least resistance,” said Buscher. “Push harder. Ask questions. Stop being afraid of making people mad. In my mind, that child is alive today because the school intervened.”

These kids, Buscher said, simply amaze her.

“It just blows your mind seeing a kid functioning in these environments."

At the end of the day, when Buscher cruises towards Sutherland, towards her family and that comfortable couch, she exhales.

She loves this part of the day, getting in her car and driving away. Reveling in the silence and, because no two days are ever the same, doing her best to prepare for tomorrow.

“You never leave those families, though,” Buscher says. “When you go home, they’re still in your head.”

Especially this time of year, when radio stations crank Christmas tunes and the windows to ma and pa shops in downtowns across Nebraska are adorned with strands of sparkling lights. Holiday cheer is unavoidable, but the reality of not seeing students whose breaks aren’t looking quite as bright has a harsh bite. She thinks of them constantly.

“I work extra hard to make sure my kids have special holidays and I want to make sure they have these wonderful things and that it’s a magical time for them,” she said. “But you always keep in mind that it’s not magical for other kids. It’s hard.”

Coming from the world of criminal justice (she’s currently working towards a masters in criminology), it took a while for Buscher to form this soft spot. In fact, early in her new career she earned the nickname “The Butcher”. Her natural criminal justice-influenced disposition didn’t play well at a junior high school.

“It took me awhile to figure it all out,” Buscher admits. “My first year, I was awful. I was mean. I’d have a junior high girl come in crying and she’d say ‘So and so said I was fat’, things like that and I’d answer ‘So? Is anyone dead? Is anyone bleeding? No? So what’s the problem?’”

Now, she can hardly stand to break from students for the summer, the hardest part of her year. Just yesterday morning, she was in a house talking a teenager into getting dressed for school.

“You have to have the mentality that you’re just going to do what you need to do,” she said. “You don’t get to say ‘That’s not my job.’ Nobody gets to say that out here.”

There’s been a rallying cry from schools across the state to serve every student every day, and Brandy Buscher’s story, with unlikely origins, embodies that mission as well as any.

“I never thought I’d be here, but I’m glad I am.”