The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Rhode Island today filed a class-action lawsuit charging that the state’s truancy court system is devoid of due process protections in violation of state and federal law.
Filed in the Rhode Island Superior Court against a number of state family court judges and officials of six 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.
“The truancy court system appears to have thrown the due process clause of the United States and Rhode Island Constitutions out the window and it is imperative that family court administrators and magistrates follow the law,” said Robin L. Dahlberg, senior staff attorney with the ACLU. “Pushing kids into the juvenile justice system is not the way to help at-risk youth graduate from high school and in fact only increases the likelihood that they will ultimately end up in the criminal justice system.”
According to the lawsuit, filed on behalf of nine parents and their children, 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 lawsuit charges that children with severe or chronic illness are forced to attend school against the orders of their doctors, and parents are subjected to harsh and unnecessary financial burdens by having to take their children to the doctor to document every single absence or take time off work to attend one truancy court hearing after another. As a result, children have suffered anxiety, stress, humiliation and, in some cases, a deterioration of their grades and behavior.
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.
“The children of our state need to be afforded all of the rights and protections available to them under the law,” said Steven Brown, Executive Director of the ACLU of Rhode Island. “We should be working to ensure that all of our kids are given every opportunity to succeed in school rather than simply dumping the most vulnerable of them into a punitive and unconstitutionally implemented court system.”
The case of Jeremy Bowen, a 14-year-old at Westerly High School in Westerly, RI and one of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, exemplifies the misuse of truancy proceedings against children with disabilities. School officials filed a truancy petition against Jeremy in November, although he had been absent only twice and tardy no more than five times that year. The petition was filed only two months after he was integrated into mainstream classes after previously being in classrooms specifically designated for students with disabilities. When Jeremy’s mother raised the issue with Westerly’s truant officer, she was informed that the petition had been filed against her son not because of absences but because of the difficulties he had been having with his schoolwork. In another case, a child who had missed many days of school due to hospitalizations and serious illness arising from his sickle cell anemia was threatened, along with his mother, with arrest and incarceration if they did not attend a scheduled truancy court hearing.
“We are very concerned that so many children are being labeled 'truant' at hearings that deprive them and their parents of the most basic constitutional rights to a fair hearing,” said Amy R. Tabor, ACLU cooperating attorney with the firm of Hardy Tabor & Chudacoff. “It violates the most fundamental American notions of fairness and due process to allow the state to conduct what are essentially secret hearings with no stenographic or other record, especially when these are hearings at which children are ordered into state custody, and at which parents and children are placed in fear by repeated threats of fines and imprisonment for even minor infractions such as skipping detention, not completing homework, acting disrespectfully, or failing to provide a doctor’s note for every sickness-related absence.”
The lawsuit seeks a preliminary injunction requiring an initial investigation of truancy charges before petitions are filed; the transcribing or reporting of all truancy court proceedings; and that the court be barred from issuing orders against students and parents over whom it has no jurisdiction. The lawsuit also seeks final declaratory and injunctive relief requiring that court and school officials abide by federal state and constitutional and state statutory law. The defendants in the case include Family Court Chief Judge Jeremiah Jeremiah, the five Family Court judges who handle truancy court cases – Patricia Asquith, Colleen Hastings, Edward Newman, Angela Paulhus and Thomas Wright – and the school superintendents in Providence, Westerly, Woonsocket, North Providence, Coventry and Cumberland.
Attorneys on the case 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 Tabor and Thomas W. Lyons with the firm of Strauss, Factor, Laing & Lyons.