This pamphlet provides information and answers to frequently asked questions about the rights of students and legal guardians as they relate to Truancy Court.
- What is “truancy,” and who is covered by truancy laws?
- What can a school district do if it claims that a child is truant?
- What is the truancy court program?
- What happens at truancy court program proceedings?
- What are the consequences to participating in the truancy court program?
- Rights of legal guardians.
- Have you run into problems in the rhode island truancy program?
RI truancy laws apply to any child who is enrolled in kindergarten or between the ages of 6 (as of September 1 of the school year) and 18. The truancy law requires children to “regularly attend” school “during all the days and hours” when school is in session. There are some exceptions to this requirement. For example, the law states that a child is not “truant” when the absences are due to a “physical or mental condition” that made attendance “inexpedient or impracticable.” In addition, a child is not “truant” if the child is attending a home-school program that has been approved by the school committee.
RI law permits school districts to bring legal proceedings in Family Court against children who the school district claims are “willfully and habitually absent” from school. The law also allows school districts to file lawsuits against the child’s legal guardian, and to charge them with “neglect” for failing to enforce school attendance.
In school districts where the Family Court operates a Truancy Court Program, a Family Court magistrate comes to one or more of the district’s middle or high schools on designated dates to hold truancy hearings. Students and their legal guardians are not required to participate in the Truancy Court Program. But if they opt to participate, and they cannot afford a private attorney, they forgo their right to be represented by a court-appointed attorney. Importantly, if a student or legal guardian opts to have truancy proceedings remain in Family Court, they retain this right to a court-appointed attorney. If they decide to remain in Truancy Court, there are legal consequences to agreeing to participate, which are described elsewhere in this pamphlet. Not all school districts participate in in the Truancy Court Program. If a school district does not participate, truancy cases are heard in Family Court. There, the child and legal guardians have the right to dispute the truancy charges. And if the child does not have funds for an attorney, an attorney will be appointed to represent them. That attorney can often help present evidence explaining the absences and challenge the claim that the child is truant.
The first contact with the Truancy Court Program may be a written notice via postal mail, that the child has been referred to Family Court for truancy. This notice may also include the location, time and date of an initial hearing before a magistrate. If the child and legal guardian don’t attend that hearing, they may later be served with a summons, which requires them to appear before the Truancy Court at a school in the district. At the first hearing before a magistrate in Truancy Court, the magistrate should explain court procedures and go over all the options available. The child and legal guardian will be given the choice of (1) remaining in the Truancy Court Program for further hearings on a regular basis, but only if they admit that the child has been truant, or (2) having the case transferred to the Family Court, where, unlike in Truancy Court, an attorney will be provided if the child cannot afford one, and the child can present evidence challenging the school district’s claim that they were truant. Truancy Court proceedings are recorded in case any disputes arise.
By agreeing to participate in the Truancy Court Program that is held in schools before a magistrate, the child:
- Must admit to being truant and must give up any right to claim that their absences were legitimate
- Will be asked to sign papers in which they will agree to attend school every day, be on time, behave in school and class, and complete all class work and homework on time
- May miss class time in order to attend these hearings
- Will be required to attend Truancy Court hearings on a regular basis (usually once per week and often for many months or more) – often with a legal guardian
- Will be subject to the oversight of the Truancy Court for up to one year, unless the Court determines there is good cause to continue monitoring for longer
- May be required to submit a doctor’s note for every absence from school due to illness
- May be required to submit to drug testing
- May be subject to a curfew or home confinement
- May be removed from the home and placed in foster care
In addition, legal guardians may be required to sign a “Release of Confidential Information” authorizing the child’s health care providers to release information about the child to the Truancy Court. Before each hearing, the magistrate will also check with the school to find out whether the child is attending school, going to all their classes, completing assignments, and whether any school staff has reported any misbehavior by the child. If the child or legal guardian asks the case to be transferred to the Family Court, they may still be required to attend multiple hearings, but often those are less frequent, such as once a month. And if the Family Court finds that the child was truant, it may make orders similar to those in Truancy Court, such as an order to submit to drug testing, curfews, home confinement or even foster care.
As in any legal proceeding, legal guardians have certain rights. For example, they have the right to:
- To know the charges against the child
- To know those charges far enough in advance of any hearing so that they can confirm whether they are accurate and legitimate
- To present evidence that all or some of the absences were excused and therefore should not serve as a basis for the truancy action
- To speak with a lawyer before the proceeding and to bring a lawyer with them
- To maintain that the child is innocent, but in order to do so, they may have to have the case transferred from the Truancy Court Program to Family Court
- To have the case heard before a judge in Family Court instead of participating in the Truancy Court Program. Unlike in Truancy Court, they will be provided a court-appointed attorney in Family Court if they cannot afford one
- To be informed by the court of the consequences of participating in the Truancy Court Program
- To be provided with an interpreter for court appearances and translation of court documents
- To view any of the written reports submitted to the Truancy Court by the child’s school
The ACLU of RI wants to ensure that the rights of students and legal guardians are protected during Truancy Court proceedings. If you have questions or concerns about the way you have been treated in Truancy Court or believe that unfair conditions have been imposed on your child, please contact us at (401) 831-7171 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.