FROM THE CITY COURT OF JEANERETTE PARISH OF IBERIA, NO. 3176
HONORABLE CAMERON B. SIMMONS, CITY COURT JUDGE
composed of Elizabeth A. Pickett, Phyllis M. Keaty, and D.
Kent Savoie, Judges.
Charlotte G. Bordenave Counsel for Appellant: T. M. (child)
J . Senette, Jr. Assistant District Attorney Counsel for
Appellee: State of Louisiana
PHYLLIS M. KEATY JUDGE.
hearing, T.M. and her mother were adjudicated a Family
in Need of Services (FINS) based upon T.M.'s truancy from
high school. She was placed in the custody of the State of
Louisiana for one year, suspended, with supervised probation
with the Office of Juvenile Justice (OJJ) for eighteen months
with special conditions. T.M. appeals. For the following
reasons, we affirm.
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
the issue to be decided in this appeal appears to be res
nova, the facts are generally not in dispute. On October 4,
2016, a FINS Petition was filed in Jeanerette City Court
(hereafter the trial court), under La.Ch.Code art. 730,
against E.H., the mother and caretaker of T.M., a
fourteen-year-old female, because of T.M.'s truancy with
twelve absences from school, of which all but one were
unexcused. According to the petition, attempts had been made
to assist and encourage the family to remedy the problem by
all appropriate and available means, but to no avail. The
petition further alleged that because T.M. was ungovernable
and could not be controlled by her parent without posing a
danger to herself or other family members, a mandatory
conference was not appropriate in the matter.
adjudication and dispositional hearing was held on February
1, 2017, where T.M. was represented by an attorney from the
Iberia Parish Public Defender's Office. At the start of
the hearing, the State offered into evidence, as State's
Exhibit 1, T.M.'s record from Jeanerette Senior High
School (JSH), showing that she had missed thirty-eight days
during the current school year. While T.M.'s attorney
indicated that she had no objection to the State's
exhibit, she sought to introduce into the record a document
showing that T.M.'s mother had withdrawn her from JSH and
enrolled her in an online homeschool program. Upon the
admission of its sole exhibit into evidence, the State rested
its case. T.M. then called as a witness James Russell, a
school attendance officer employed by the Iberia Parish
School Board (IPSB). After Mr. Russell was sworn in, but
before any testimony was elicited from him, T.M.'s
attorney made an oral motion to continue the matter without
date on the ground that the matter was moot because of T.M.
having transferred into a homeschool program. The State did
not object to a continuance given the fact that T.M. and her
family were already receiving FINS services through the
district court. Nevertheless, the trial court denied the
motion to continue.
attorney was then allowed to present her defense to the
petition. Mr. Russell testified that Louisiana law allows a
parent to remove their child from a traditional school and to
enroll them in a homeschool program whereby the parent
assumes responsibility for their child's education. Mr.
Russell explained that homeschooled students remained subject
to state-mandated testing, although he was unfamiliar with
how they were monitored by the State. He was shown a document
marked Defense Exhibit 1, which he identified as a letter
dated January 20, 2017, welcoming T.M. to the Connections
State's attempt to cross-examine Mr. Russell regarding
T.M.'s school performance, attendance, and how he thought
she would do in homeschooling was met by an objection from
the defense regarding relevancy. The trial court sustained
the objection on the basis that such testimony would be more
relevant to the disposition if it were to adjudicate T.M. and
her mom as FINS. The trial court then questioned Mr. Russell
about a December 14, 2016 letter in T.M.'s school record.
Mr. Russell identified the letter as a notification to
T.M.'s mother that the IPSB had held an administrative
hearing to review T.M.'s welfare and school attendance
and that it had upheld her suspension from JSH and placed her
on probation for the remainder of the school year. When asked
about the procedure for enrolling a student into a recognized
homeschool program, Mr. Russell confirmed that the State
Department of Education had to approve a student's
entrance into such a program. Although he had no personal
knowledge of whether the request for T.M. to enroll in the CA
had been approved, Mr. Russell stated that he was unaware of
any student having been denied such approval.
redirect from the defense, Mr. Russell stated that as far as
the IPSB was concerned, T.M.'s education was in the hands
of her mother and the CA, and T.M. had the option of
returning to the IPSB system regardless of how she did in the
homeschool program. He agreed that in removing T.M. from the
IPSB system, her mother "did not do anything that was
not recognized by the State Education Board." Upon
re-cross, Mr. Russell stated that the JSH administration
referred T.M. to FINS because of her lack of attendance and
her unwillingness to attend class when she was at school.
Thereafter, the defense entered "a stipulation into the
record that the Iberia Parish School system took all the
appropriate efforts to try to remediate the compulsory school
attendance problem and was unsuccessful." The defense
then submitted the case for decision after insisting that
there was no need to adjudicate T.M. a truant because she was
no longer in school.
consideration of the record, the testimony, and the exhibits,
the trial court ruled in open court that the State had
carried its burden of proving that T.M. was "in
violation of the compulsory school attendance laws, "
and it adjudicated T.M. a FINS child. Initially, the defense
sought to delay the dispositional phase of the hearing;
however, it later agreed to conclude the matter that day. The
State recalled Mr. Russell to the stand to elicit his opinion
as to a proper disposition in this case. He noted that
because of T.M.'s unwillingness to attend class, her
grades were not necessarily indicative of her academic
abilities. While he had not received any information from
T.M.'s mother as to her progress at the CA, based upon
her school records, Mr. Russell stated that some of the
"social emotional concerns" exhibited by T.M. in a
large classroom setting might make that environment less
conducive to her ability to learn. Accordingly, he believed
that a homeschool setting might provide T.M. with the
"academic nurturing" necessary for her to be able
to learn. Mr. Russell noted that if T.M. did not do well in
homeschooling, her mom could return her to the IPSB system.
He further noted that if a student enrolled in an online
program did not attain the required number of hours, that
student would not be allowed to move on academically. On
cross-examination by the defense, Mr. Russell confirmed that
T.M.'s mother had the absolute choice under Louisiana law
to remove her from the IPSB and enroll her in an acceptable
homeschool program such as the CA.
next witness called by the State was Christian LaGrange,
T.M.'s former counselor at JSH who had met with her on a
regular basis to discuss her grades and attendance in order
to help her with any accompanying social issues that were
affecting her school performance. She agreed with Mr.
Russell's belief that T.M. had yet to show her true
academic potential and that, given her lack of motivation to
attend school, she was unable to say how T.M. would do with
homeschooling. In response to questions posed to her by the
defense, Ms. LaGrange agreed that there were many reasons why
a student might not want to attend school and that she could
not say that T.M.'s poor attendance record was due to her
being lazy and/or her unwillingness to do schoolwork. Ms.