ACLU Urges Rhode Island Supreme Court to Review Truancy Courts

April 30, 2007 12:00 am

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Court System Violates Rights of Parents, ACLU Says

PROVIDENCE, RI – The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today asked the state Supreme Court to review a case that raises fundamental questions about the procedures used by so-called “truancy courts” that prosecute students who are absent from school. The ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case arguing that essential due process safeguards are absent from the operation of these courts, which have become increasingly prevalent in public schools across the state.

“The ACLU is very concerned about the increasing numbers of parents and children pulled into the truancy court system,” said Amy Tabor, an ACLU cooperating attorney and author of today’s brief. “Some school districts treat children as truant whenever they arrive at school a few minutes late, even though their lateness has resulted in only a few minutes of missed homeroom.”

The Rhode Island truancy court program began in 2000 as a pilot project and has now spread to several schools throughout the state. Through the program, a magistrate and a court aide go to a school to hold court sessions.

The case at issue in today’s brief involves a Westerly middle school student, referred to as “Jessica G.” in court papers. Jessica and her mother have been in truancy court for more than a year. Shortly after the family moved to the school district, Jessica’s mother asked school personnel to evaluate her daughter for special education eligibility and services. But the school district failed to conduct any evaluation and instead initiated truancy proceedings against Jessica for missing school. The court went so far as to order that Jessica be placed in the care of the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), even though the state had not recommended such action. That order was subsequently rescinded.

Even though school reports indicate that Jessica now has good (and in some cases “perfect”) attendance, Jessica is still required to continue attending truancy court. Jessica and her mother brought an appeal to family court to remove themselves from the truancy system, but without any hearing at which witnesses could testify and evidence be produced, the trial judge denied the motion to dismiss the case and ordered Jessica to continue attending truancy court. The ACLU filed its friend-of-the-court brief today in support of the family’s request that the Supreme Court give full review to the appeal.

“As Jessica’s case suggests, some schools seem to use the truancy courts as a way of avoiding their responsibilities to meet the needs of disabled children,” Tabor said. “A child may suffer from a serious medical or psychiatric condition that has made regular school attendance difficult or impossible, and the school district, instead of addressing the child’s need for special education or other supports, may bring truancy charges. Families already struggling with a child’s disability must endure even further stress as they cope with the requirement that they return repeatedly to truancy court.”

In addition to raising questions about the failure of school officials to comply with federal requirements governing students with disabilities, Jessica’s case raises important civil liberties issues involving a parent’s right to care for his or her children without undue interference by the state, as well as the right to a meaningful appeal process in the event of erroneous or wrongful court orders, said the ACLU.

The truancy court proceedings are not conducted with stenographers or other verbatim recordings. The only record of these proceedings are very brief notes, usually handwritten on a form entitled “Event Hearing Sheet, Truancy Court.” These notes, which can be difficult to decipher, generally do not inform anyone reviewing them of what was said by the various people at the hearing. One cannot tell, for example, what explanations were given by the child or parent for the child’s absences.

There are also no clear rules as to when a child’s truancy case should be closed, nor is there any clear procedure for a parent and child to follow to seek to have their case closed. While the case is open, the child and often his or her parent must attend truancy court sessions on a regular basis, sometimes as frequently as weekly. The parent may miss work or have difficulty caring for the child’s siblings due to the attendance requirements of truancy court. In some cases, proceedings are held during the school day, and the child is pulled from academic classes to attend court.

“Truancy court can be a particular hardship for low-income working parents, who are already struggling to pay the rent, utilities, food bills and other daily living expenses for their families,” Tabor said. “We have heard such parents express frustration at how much harder it is to make ends meet, when they must lose wages to attend truancy court.”

Under the current truancy court system, a parent’s lost work days can mount up even after the child is regularly attending school, because truancy magistrates often extend a child’s case long after the child’s school attendance has improved. When school attendance is no longer an issue, the truancy courts begin to focus on matters such as whether the child is doing all his schoolwork, what his grades are, and whether he has been too fidgety or talkative in class.

“These are matters that the school districts themselves can and should address, without the personal and financial costs to children, parents and the taxpayers, of ongoing court involvement,” Tabor added.

The ACLU brief is online at:

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