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Elizabeth Boyer, left, of Westerly, takes a moment while describing dealings she and her son have had with the Truancy Court. Rozanne Thomasian, of North Providence, another parent, listens to her story. The Providence Journal / Steve Szydlowski
PROVIDENCE — The American Civil Liberties Union and its Rhode Island chapter filed a class action lawsuit on Monday that charges the state's Truancy Court with operating in secrecy and violating the constitutional rights of children and their parents in six communities across the state.

The 71-page lawsuit charges that several Truancy Court judges and school systems unfairly punish students who have problems attending school or completing their school work because of special-education or medical needs. It goes on to say that the truancy courts threaten vulnerable children with fines, imprisonment or removal from their families.

To make matters worse, ACLU officials say, the hearings and punishments are done behind closed doors. The hearings are not open to the public and there is no stenographer present to record what transpires in Truancy Court.

"The Truancy Court system appears to have thrown the due-process clause of the United States and Rhode Island Constitutions out the window, and it is imperative that Family Court administrators and magistrates follow the law," said Robin L. Dahlberg, senior staff attorney with the ACLU. "Pushing kids into the juvenile justice system is not the way to help at-risk youth graduate from high school and, in fact, only increases the likelihood that they will ultimately end up in the criminal justice system."

The court was created in 1999 by Jeremiah S. Jeremiah Jr., chief judge of the state's Family Court. It operates in more than 150 schools across the state. Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Jeremiah; Ronald Pagliarini, administrator of the Family Court; and Kevin Richard, director of juvenile services of the Family Court. Also named as defendants are five Family Court magistrates and the school superintendents in Providence, Cumberland, North Providence, Coventry, Woonsocket and Westerly.

The filing of the lawsuit was announced yesterday at a news conference held at the headquarters of the ACLU's Rhode Island chapter on Dorrance Street. Several of the parents, who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, appeared with the ACLU officials and they provided emotionally charged stories of what they had experienced.

Elizabeth Boyer, of Westerly, said that last fall the town's truant officer served her a summons with a truancy petition saying that her 14-year old son, Jeremy, had been absent twice and late for school five times.

She said in an affidavit that Magistrate Judge Edward H. Newman warned her that her son, if found guilty of the truancy charge, could end up in the State Training School.

In January, school officials informed Boyer that they had concluded that her son's problems were a result of special-education needs that had not been addressed. The truancy charges were dropped, but Boyer said that the ordeal has left her shaken.

"It's not OK to just railroad [children] into court," she said. "It's not fair that he's at risk of being taken away from me."

A second parent, Rozanne Thomasian, of North Providence, told the gathered members of the news media a similar story. She said that in June 2007, her daughter was completing seventh grade at Curtis Corner Middle School in South Kingstown when the Family Court charged the girl as a "habitual truant." She had missed 33 days during that school year.

Thomasian said the frequent absences were the result of her daughter's battle with severe ADHD and Tourette syndrome. She said that she was never included in Truancy Court proceedings against her daughter.

The family has since moved to North Providence, and Thomasian's daughter has had to go to Truancy Court hearings regularly for the past three years. An affidavit filed in support of the lawsuit says the girl has experienced "increased anxiety, humiliation and stress which exacerbate her mental health issues."

"It's a whole process of bullying and intimidation," Thomasian said. "You live in fear that if you do anything, you are going to lose your child or go to jail."

Yelena Konanova, a lawyer for the ACLU in New York who attended the news conference, said the plaintiffs are simply seeking a change in the way truancy courts do business in Rhode Island: "Stop depriving children and their parents of their basic constitutional rights," she said.

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