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Parents Say State Uses Truancy Court To Punish Children With Special Needs

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (CN) - Rhode Island uses its Truancy Court to discipline and punish students with learning and medical disabilities and other problems, rather than to help them, nine families say in a class action in Superior Court. And they say the Truancy Court, a branch of the Family Court, incarcerates students at the State Training School without due process.

The parents say that teachers and administrators declared their children "wayward" because of their special needs, not because they were truants.

One mother says she attended a truancy hearing for her son, who suffers from a moderate form of sickle-cell anemia. She says he was threatened with jail if he did not attend school for 30 days straight.

Fearing arrest, she says, she rushed home from the court and took him to school though he was ill. Within two hours, the school had to call an ambulance to take the boy to the hospital.

The mother says the court dismissed her son's case at his next hearing. But she says that because the Truancy Court enforces the law "in an arbitrary and capricious manner," she fears that she and her son may have to go through the whole process again.

The Rhode Island Truancy Courts were created in 1999 by the Family Court's Chief Justice Jeremiah. According to the court Web site: "The stated purpose of permitting the adjudication of 'wayward child' truancy petitions in the children's schools, so that those children might be able to access school and community services more quickly and efficiently than they would have been able had they been required to travel to the Family Court to have the petitions adjudicated." Five magistrates preside over Truancy Court for 150 schools.

The parents say the Truancy Court violates state and federal law by denying children timely notice of the charges against them, by failing to investigate properly whether the charges are valid, and by not allowing the families to rebut them.

They also say the court withholds transcripts of its proceedings, and if the students admit to the charges and agree to abide by the rules set forth by the magistrates, they are denied the right to challenge school officials who claim they break the terms.

And they say the children's parents and guardians are subjected to punitive orders of the Truancy Court, though they are not part of the proceedings against the children.

The families say the failure of the Truancy Court is indicated by the increase in the high school dropout rate from 4 percent in 2003 to 5.8 percent in 2007.

The parents say the Truancy Court gets it exactly wrong: embarrassing and frustrating students, many of whom should not be subjected to truancy proceedings in the first place, to the point that they feel helpless and eventually drop out.

The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment and an injunction barring the defendants from further truancy proceedings against them.

Their lead counsel is Thomas Lyons with the ACLU.


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