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NAACP Challenges School District’s|Astronomical Truancy Fines

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) - The NAACP claims the Lebanon School District illegally fined poor people thousands of dollars for their children's truancy. The federal class action claims that state law limits truancy fines to $300 plus costs, but the district charged as much as $9,000 per citation, and charged "in excess of $300 on at least 323 fines, totaling at least $107,000." When the NAACP confronted it, the district knocked $235,000 off the fines, but the NAACP and parents say that didn't resolve the problem.

"Although the governing Pennsylvania statute, 24 P.S. § 13-1333, limits fines to $300 plus costs for a citation, the district sought and obtained fines in excess of such amounts, including fines as high as $9,000 plus costs per citation," according to the complaint. The district issues more than 1,200 truancy citations a year.

Suing with class representative parents, the NAACP says the school district "began the campaign of intensive use of court citations and excessive fines for truancy in the 2004-05 school year with the appointment of Robert Bowman as attendance officer, with the fines increasing each school year through 2008-09."

From July 1, 2004 through June 30, 2009, the district was awarded at least 935 fines in excess of $300, at least 178 of which exceeded $1,000, the complaint states.

For the 2008-09 school year alone, the district issued 1,489 citations to more than 700 parents or students for a total of more than $498,000; 250 fines were more than $300 and 75 were over $1,000, the parents say.

"Many of the parents with excessive fines are on limited or fixed incomes and are paying the fines to the district courts pursuant to monthly payment plans," and many of the excessive fines from the past six years are still being collected, according to the complaint.

Parents filing the class action include four mothers who together have been fined more than $19,000.

A single mother of three, Rosa Rivera, was fined $1,400 when her son missed 20 days of school because she had been planning to enroll him in a school in Puerto Rico.

Omary Rodriguez-Fuentes, a mother of four, has been paying off 29 truancy citations that total more than $7,000 at a rate of $150 per month from her disability income, which is her family's only source of financial support.

Madeline Echevarria has paid more than $3,000 in truancy citations for her two children. And Lenora Hummel, who also lives on disability and is a single mother, has been fined more than $8,000.

The mothers seek to include all "parents of truant school children who either paid fines in excess of the statutory maximum or have outstanding balances owed based on fines in excess of the statutory maximum" in the class.

The NAACP does not sue as a class representative but claims that the district imposes the illegal fines as "deterrents to parents and students from registering students in the school district out of fear of exorbitant fines," and diverts resources of the NAACP chapters and its members to reining in the school district.

The class claims that even though the Pennsylvania Department of Education "recommends that school districts develop Truancy Elimination Plans for each truant student with the participation of the students' parents before initiating court proceedings for truancy, defendant School District as never done so."

They say that when the schools district was "confronted in 2009 by Lebanon Chapter of the NAACP with the illegality of such fines, the district tacitly admitted the fines were illegal by selectively acting to adjust many of the fines to conform to the $300 limitation, while leaving other excessive fines unchanged."

The class claims the school district "sought and obtained from the district courts the adjustment of at least 340 fines that had been in excess of the statutory maximum. Most were adjusted down to the statutory maximum. Some of the fines dated back to 2004. These actions reduced outstanding balances being collected for distribution to the district by at least $235,000. The school district has never disclosed the criteria by which the recipients of these reductions were selected, but at least 273 fines which still have outstanding balances due were excluded from the adjustments. ... No rational basis exists for the distinction between fines which were reduced and those that were not. The intentional exclusion of plaintiff class members with outstanding balances from those selected for adjustment was arbitrary and capricious."

While the district has stopped collecting some of the excessive fines, the class claims, "it has done nothing to provide restitution of the funds it has illegally obtained from those who diligently completed paying their fines or who have made partial payments in excess of $300, thus irrationally treating more harshly persons who have complied with the fines than those who have not."

The class claims that when the district reduced some of its outstanding fines, it was "an admission that it was not entitled to the proceeds of fines in excess of $300 per citation, and it is inconsistent with the school district's retaining the payments of excess fines that it has received, which on information and belief totaled at least $107,000 since July 1, 2004."

They add that because the district has never given notice to any class members of any procedure to seek "adjustment" of unpaid fines or restitution of excessive amounts paid, the class has been denied "any process to establish that they are eligible or entitled to adjustment like those given to others based on secret criteria."

The class seeks declaratory judgment and injunctive relief for violations of equal protection and due process, violations of the Pennsylvania Constitution and Public School Code, equitable restitution of the illegal fines paid to the district and the creation of truancy-elimination programs consistent with the Pennsylvania Department of Education's Basic Education Circular.

They are represented by Michael Churchill and Benjamin Geffen with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and Thomas B. Schmidt III with Pepper Hamilton, of Harrisburg.

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