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Woonsocket Education Department Agrees To Stop Sending 
Children To Unlawfully Operated Rhode Island

Posted: May 13, 2010|Category: Due Process Category: Students' Rights Category: Youth Rights

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The Woonsocket Education Department has agreed to stop sending children to Rhode Island’s unlawfully operated truancy court system and to end its participation in the program completely. The agreement follows a pending class-action lawsuit filed in March by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Rhode Island charging that the state’s truancy court system is devoid of due process protections for children in violation of state and federal law.

“We’re relieved that the Woonsocket Education Department will no longer be sending children who miss any amount of school to a punitive court system devoid of due process,” said Robin L. Dahlberg, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program. “Needlessly pushing children into the juvenile justice system only increases the likelihood that they will ultimately end up in the criminal justice system.”

As part of the settlement agreement, the Woonsocket Education Department will:

  • cease their involvement with the Rhode Island Truancy Court program; and
  • seek dismissal of all truancy cases involving Woonsocket public school students.

While the department still has the ability to refer truant children to family court, it has also agreed to:

  • undertake educationally sound corrective measures to address truancy within the school setting before referring children to court;
  • follow state law in referring to court only those children who are “willfully and habitually” absent, defined in the settlement agreement as being absent more than 10 times in a semester and for reasons other than illness, family emergencies or other good cause;
  • cease immediately the financially burdensome and physician-rejected practice of requiring all medical absences to be documented with a doctor’s note; and follow state law in giving proper notice of hearings to families referred to the court.

The ACLU’s lawsuit challenging the abuse of truancy courts is still pending against a number of state family court officials, truancy court magistrates and five other school districts including Providence. The lawsuit charges that the truancy courts are frequently punitive in nature, and that truancy court magistrates threaten vulnerable children and their parents with baseless fines and imprisonment, remove children from the custody of their parents without legal justification and fail to keep adequate records of court hearings. The lawsuit also charges that the court system disproportionately impacts children who have difficulty attending school or doing their schoolwork because of special education or medical needs.

“We hope that other Rhode Island school districts will follow Woonsocket’s lead and seek more constructive means to help at-risk kids,” said Steven Brown, Executive Director of the ACLU of Rhode Island. “The children of Rhode Island should be given every opportunity to succeed in school instead of being steered into a punitive and unconstitutionally implemented court system.”

According to the lawsuit, many of the children forced to appear before truancy courts have not, in fact, been willfully or habitually absent from school. Instead they include children unable to attend school regularly due to severe or chronic medical conditions and children whose serious emotional conditions prevent full-time attendance. In some cases, they are children who have missed almost no school days at all, but who have been put into the truancy court system for such infractions as not doing their homework. Some children have been kept in the truancy court system for over two years without ever being given guidelines as to what they must do to be released from the court’s supervision.

The hearings themselves are riddled with constitutional problems, as judicial officials, in violation of the law, fail to adequately inform children of charges that are filed against them, fail to conduct preliminary investigations into the charges as mandated by law and fail to inform children of a number of their constitutional rights.

Attorneys on the case, Boyer v. Jeremiah, include Dahlberg and Yelena Konanova of the ACLU Racial Justice Program, Deborah N. Archer of New York Law School and ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorneys Amy R. Tabor with the firm of Hardy, Tabor, and Chudacoff, and Thomas W. Lyons with the firm of Strauss, Factor, Laing & Lyons.

Read more about this case.

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