On Thursday the Pennsylvania NAACP and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of four Pennsylvania parents from the town of Lebanon accusing the school district of charging exorbitant fines for kids who consistently missed school. The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Education has also initiated an investigation into allegations of racial discrimination in the use of the truancy policy at the request of the local NAACP chapter.
The lawsuit claims that the school district demanded excessive and illegal fines for truants that exploited the truancy policy into what the Pennsylvania NAACP called an “outrageously, discriminatory truancy punishment machine.” The Public Interest Law Center claims that one student accrued $27,000 of debt and another student’s family had been fined more than $12,000.
The Lebanon Daily News profiled the Hummels, who were slammed with exorbitant fines. Lenora Hummel said her kids Justin and Shannon faced bullying and harassment that made them terrified of going to school. For that they were fined more than $8,000. Hummel said that when she contacted the school to ask them to address her kids’ concerns, the school said they had no control over the situation. The fines kept coming. Shannon is going to school online and Justin, now 20, is trying to get his GED elsewhere.
According to the lawsuit, Pennsylvania sets a maximum penalty at $300 per violation, but state law also allows judges to decide fines for families. Fines can be levied against parents as well as any student who’s at least 13 years old. Judges also have the right to order parents to enroll in parenting education programs, but parents of repeat offenders face jail time as well or in the most extreme cases, loss of their parental rights. The Public Interest Law Center claimed in a press release that the Lebanon school district charged nearly $500,000 in fines in one school year, from 2008-2009, and that it had taken families to court over 8,000 times in just six years. The controversy began in 2009 when parents approached the school board to complain about the fines.
The Lebanon schools superintendent Marianne Bartley denied any wrongdoing, the Lebanon Daily News reported. The district’s attorney said that the plaintiffs’ public statements were inaccurate.
While Lebanon’s 14 percent truancy rate is lower than that of neighboring towns of Lancaster, 21 percent, and Steelton-Highspire, 26 percent, according to the Patriot-News, Lebanon parents say that the truancy policies have not done anything to curb their own town’s truancy rate.
“This is class action and will benefit all families - white families, minority families, all families that have been bearing the burden of these illegally set fines,” Public Interest Law Center’s attorney Michael Churchill told the Lebanon Daily News. Plaintiffs have asked for the district to return any fines that were collected illegally and to stop trying to collect fines that violate state law. Parents say they want school districts to reach out to parents to understand why students are skipping school in the first place, and to use fines only as a measure of last resort.