ACLU Lawsuit Challenges Unconstitutional Practices of Rhode Island Truancy Courts

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Will Matthews, ACLU, (212) 549-2592 or 2666; media@aclu.org
Steven Brown, ACLU of Rhode Island, (401) 831-7171; riaclu@riaclu.org

ACLU Lawsuit Challenges Unconstitutional Practices of Rhode Island Truancy Courts

Punitive Court System Denies Children Basic Constitutional Protections

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - 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.  

Additional information about the
case, including a copy of the complaint is available online at: www.aclu.org/racial-justice/boyer-v-jeremiah

Additional information about the ACLU
is available online at: www.aclu.org

Additional information about the
Rhode Island affiliate of the ACLU is available online at: www.riaclu.org

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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