Classroom to Courtroom: Lawsuit Tackles Rhode Island’s Court for ‘Wayward’ Students

By Michelle Chen Mar 30, 2010

Rhode Island wants its kids to stay in school. Or else. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on Monday charging that the state’s anti-truancy policy not only ignores children’s legitimate reasons for not attending school, but subjects them and their families to intimidation, humiliation, and severe legal penalties. The truancy courts, the suit contends, "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." In addition, the ACLU says "the court system disproportionately impacts children who have difficulty attending school or doing their schoolwork because of special education or medical needs." In short, zero tolerance for truancy could come at the expense of children’s health. You might think the state’s effort to promote full attendance is based on a belief that school helps them, you know, learn useful things and grow up to be productive adults. But according to the suit, somewhere in the implementation process, this goal was perverted into a policy of keeping children in class at all costs–even if it means driving children toward the criminal justice system. One of the plaintiffs in the case, 14 year-old Heather A. of Woonsocket Middle School, is described as struggling with "learning difficulties that Woonsocket school officials have refused to address." The school seems to more willing to punish her for institutional failures:

Because she often feels overwhelmed with class and homework, she frequently misses school. Instead of providing her with the support and services that she needs to succeed, Woonsocket school officials referred her to the Truancy Court on three separate occasions. To compel her to attend school, Truancy Court Magistrates repeatedly threatened to place her in foster care and to jail her mother who is currently battling stomach cancer.

The Rhode Island Truancy Court Program‘s website outlines its procedure, something akin to probation for kids:

The truant officer presents the court with the student’s attendance history including tardiness. He or she gives the court a brief history of the student’s prior absenteeism and informs the court of any unexcused days missed in the current period…. The student’s guidance counselor presents the Truancy Court with the student’s academic record before its involvement and monitors the student’s academic and behavioral progress while involved with the program. The student is expected not only to attend school and be on time, but to also keep up with his or her work…. A student’s parent(s) are instructed to attend the first three court sessions. If the student attends school every day and is on time, the parent no longer has to attend court unless there is a problem.

But why stop at just making sure they never miss a minute of school? The program controls their activity outside of class as well:

Participants have a weekday curfew from Sunday through Thursday and a weekend curfew on Friday and Saturday. If a student is placed on home confinement, he or she cannot leave the house unless accompanied by a parent. A violation of home confinement or curfew could result in arrest or other sanctions from the Truancy Court. Only a note from a doctor, hospital, or the school nurse will excuse a child from school due to sickness. If a Truancy Court student or parent(s) does not want to abide by the Truancy Court criteria, the petition will be referred to a Family Court Associate Justice for trial.

Impacted parents and kids say this heavy enforcement system subjects children to legal strictures even when they have a valid medical or personal reason to miss school. Meanwhile, running students through this byzantine legal gauntlet–which mirrors other hardline, often discriminatory school discipline policies–may end up disrupting their education in far deeper ways than a lost day of school ever would. Under this program, the ACLU argues, "children have suffered anxiety, stress, humiliation and, in some cases, a deterioration of their grades and behavior." The official guiding logic behind this program is that "a reduction in truancy has been shown to decrease crime, teen pregnancy, and drug and alcohol use as well as to change attitudes to enhance school readiness." The fundamental disconnect here is that officials don’t seem to realize that reducing truancy in numerical terms won’t address the social factors that foster crime, teen pregnancy, and other destructive behavior. Certainly, chaining children to their desks would be an effective way of preventing them from skipping school, but probably not to the benefit of their educational experience (a process that is usually more effective when children actually want, and have a reason, to be in class, aside from the threat of getting themselves or their parents in trouble with the law). The state reports that "Since its inception in 1999, there have been over 6,500 participants in the Truancy Court program," and that "The program goal is for all participants to graduate from high school." It’s nice that they are attempting to tie the program to a positive academic objective for these "wayward" youth. Are schools putting as much energy and resources into improving school completion rates–and more importantly, making school something that is worth completing? The ACLU’s complaint notes that "Rhode Island high school graduation rates stayed practically the same from 2003 to 2007, while the dropout rates increased from 4.0% to 5.8%." Research has shown that school "push-out" disproportionately impacts children of color, who are also especially vulnerable to the structural inequalities that leave their communities underserved and deprived of real opportunities for economic and social advancement. With the Dignity in Schools campaign, a coalition of activists is pressing the Obama administration to consider the dangerous consequences of "exclusionary discipline" policies that tend to criminalize, rather than support children in trouble. In the debate over school reform, officials are pitching an array of ideas for raising academic and institutional standards. But what does it say about our basic standards of decency when a public education system that is supposed to enrich children’s minds no longer allows them to actually be children. Image:Truancy court scene in Dallas (Michael Mulvey / Dallas Morning News)