Last fall, Jeremy Bowen, a 14-year-old student receiving special educational services at Westerly High School in Westerly, Rhode Island, took the courageous step of integrating into mainstream classes. Jeremy struggled with the assigned work, and his mother, Elizabeth Boyer, spent countless hours in meetings with school officials working to revise Jeremy’s education plan to provide him with the support and services he needed.
But instead of providing Jeremy with the support he needed, the Westerly School Department filed a petition with the state’s family court asking that Jeremy be found “wayward” — a hopelessly technical term that few parents or kids understand — on the basis of his alleged “truancy:” a total of two absences and five tardies. No one explained to Ms. Boyer why Jeremy was being charged with “willful and habitual” absenteeism. Nor did the family court contact her, as part of a preliminary investigation required by law, to determine whether an informal meeting, instead of a formal hearing in front of a judge, might be more appropriate for Jeremy. Jeremy’s case was sent straight to a truancy court, an arm of the family court originally designed with the stated purpose of helping children stay in school by granting them quick and efficient access to necessary services, but which now functions as a punitive mechanism that disproportionately affects children with disabilities and other medical conditions.
When Jeremy and his mother arrived in truancy court, the magistrate did not take the time to make sure they understood the charges against Jeremy, their right to an attorney, to the presumption of innocence, and their right to a hearing where they could present evidence. No one explained how the truancy court would affect Jeremy’s rights under federal and state special education laws. They had no attorney. The hearing was not recorded. Instead, Ms. Boyer was given a stack of legal papers to sign waiving Jeremy’s rights and establishing jurisdiction of the court over Jeremy until the age of 19. They were not told what they can do if they believed the charges were inaccurate, or how they could ever get out from the truancy court system.
Jeremy Bowen’s case is not unusual. The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Rhode Island yesterday filed a class-action lawsuit charging that Rhode Island’s truancy court system is administered and operated in violation of state and federal law. This case is part of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program’s efforts to end the school-to-prison pipeline – a national trend wherein children, and disproportionately children of color, are funneled out of the public school system and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
The Rhode Island truancy courts have been in operation since 1999, and now conduct proceedings in over 150 schools throughout the state. In the 2008-09 school year, the truancy court had under its jurisdiction 709 students referred to it by just six towns. One of the other 10 student plaintiffs, a child who had missed many days of school due to debilitating pain and hospitalizations arising from his sickle cell anemia was threatened, along with his mother, with arrest and incarceration if they did not attend a scheduled court hearing. As a result of being hauled into truancy court, many of these children suffer from anxiety, stress, humiliation, and deterioration of their grades and behavior. Their parents are subjected to harsh and unnecessary financial burdens because they are ordered to take their children to the doctor to document every absence, and to take time off work to make sure the children arrive at school and to accompany the children to the truancy court hearings.
Yesterday’s lawsuit asks that the truancy court practices be declared unlawful. It also requests that the family court be immediately ordered to stop filing truancy petitions without first conducting the preliminary investigation, to stop truancy court proceedings which are secret and unrecorded, and to stop issuing orders against those individuals over whom they have no authority.
The lawsuit also seeks a court order that judicial and school officials follow clear and well-established federal and state law, and stop depriving children and their parents of their basic legal rights.