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ACLU Sues Over Truancy Court Practices

The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island is suing Family Court Chief Judge Jeremiah S. Jeremiah claiming that the practices of the truancy court program violate the constitutional rights of the public school children and their parents.

truancy%20graphic.jpgThe administrators of the program, the class action lawsuit contends, have threatened to arrest students or have them placed in custody if they fail to attend school. The lawsuit says that the administrators of the court engaged in a “pattern and practice of intimidation designed to bully plaintiffs.” The bullying is said to lead to a waiving of the constitutional rights of those involved.

The plaintiffs in the case are nine teenagers who are identified through the lawsuit by pseudonyms and their parents or guardians. The students have special education needs, chronic medical conditions or family caretaking obligations. The lawsuit says that these special circumstances resulted in the student’s missing school, being tardy or being unable to maintain schoolwork requirements in class. It also says these conditions also lead to the students to be unable to behave in school.

These abuses are alleged to have occurred in five school districts in the state, including Providence, North Providence, Coventry, Cumberland and Woonsocket. More than 700 students attend schools in this area in the past two years.

Of those filing the lawsuit is a student from a middle school who suffers from sickle cell anemia and who has an education plan that specifically says the student should not be punished for missing school. In this case, the mother was ordered to appear in Family Court because she failed to appear in the truancy court because she was hospitalized. The mother appeared in the court but without the child who was home ill. The court, under Judge Jeremiah, issued an arrest warrant for the child then told the mother it would vacate the arrest warrant if the child was brought in to school by noon that day. The mother took the child to school and two hours later, he complained of chest pains and had to be rushed to the hospital by ambulance.

Some plaintiffs were under the age of 12 when they were labeled as being wayward or truant students. One mother was ordered to leave her night job early to ensure that her child made it to school by 7 am. The woman lost pay because of this decision and eventually lost her job, though it is not known if the change in schedules played a role in this. Another mother was ordered by the school to bring an ill child to school or he would be arrested.

In another instance, a child with Tourette’s syndrome and ADHD who struggled to attend school and often had behavior problems in class was told by the magistrate that he “had no interest whatsoever” in the child’s behavior or health concerns, but only that the student failed to come to school and fell behind in studies.

The Truancy Court program was created by Judge Jeremiah in 1999 and it was designed to help those students who are labeled as at risk to stay in school. These courts operate in school offices and school libraries and are part of the Family Court process. Attorneys are appointed as court magistrates to administer such hearings. These types of courts are present in 150 schools throughout the state and have no written transcripts of what occurs in each of the hearings. That is a violation of due process rights to the plaintiffs, the class action lawsuit claims.

The court requires parents to sign documentation that “waive their rights” to legal representation in a Family Court situation. Weekly truancy court hearings may be required if the magistrate issues them.

If you are a California school administrator with a question about student/teacher safety, special education, accommodations, student rights, free speech or discipline, feel free to call attorney Richard Oppenheim at 818-461-8500. There is never a charge for an initial consultation and we can help you choose the best direction to resolve any school district issue.