CHILDERSBURG, Ala. — The parents of a 12-year-old girl with autism are facing trial on criminal charges under an obscure truancy law after their daughter used a device to record teachers and staff at school.

Christopher and Tonya McEwen were arrested and jailed last November, and their children were removed from their home for more than a month, according to records provided by the couple. They had an initial court appearance in February and are slated to be tried in Talladega County in April under the state’s truancy law for the charge of “Contributing to the Delinquency, Dependency and/or CHINS (child in need of services) of a minor.”

If convicted, they each face a $100 penalty or 90 days of hard labor. The truancy law not only governs the enrollment and attendance of children, it also says parents can be charged with a misdemeanor if they fail to “compel” their child to behave “in accordance with the written policy (or) school behavior adopted by the local board of education.”

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The district’s policy prohibits the use of recording devices at school, but the McEwens’ attorneys argue the recording was permitted under state law.

Tonya McEwen said she believes the school is trying to punish them for advocating for their daughter’s education.

“They arrested me and her daddy to make her mind (behave) in school,” she said. “It’s truancy is what they’re saying. They’re trying to make a board policy an illegal action.”

The charges stem from their daughter Jessalynn’s use of a hidden recorder to document her treatment at Childersburg Middle School, part of the Talladega County School System, the couple claims. Jessalynn has severe learning disabilities and autism, and she has seizures, anxiety and depression.

Principal Jena Jones, who swore out the arrest warrant, said she was unable to comment about the case.

The county district attorney did not respond prior to publication.

Jessalynn’s parents say she recorded over 35 interactions with teachers and staff to document her treatment at the school.

“The reason for why she felt she needed to record is important: self-advocacy under (the) Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,” said the family’s attorney James Gallini.

Her parents allege the school failed to provide adequate instruction for her and subjected her to verbal abuse and seclusion, which led her to have anxiety-related seizures at school. At one point she threatened suicide.

“She kept coming home saying they were doing this to her and they were doing that to her at school,” Tonya McEwen said. “She couldn’t just tell us, so we asked her if she wanted to wear a recorder; 28 of 36 recordings were abuse. To the point where she was banging her head against cinderblock walls for help.”

The McEwens say their daughter was sometimes left in a room unsupervised for hours.

According to her parents, in November, Jessalynn turned her recorder over to the school. Jones, the principal, then wrote a warrant for their arrest.

The McEwens say they were driving down the street in front of their house when they were pulled over and arrested by several school resource officers from Childersburg Middle.

“We were surrounded by three county cop cars like we were murderers,” said McEwen.

The Alabama Department of Human Resources also launched an investigation into the couple.

DHR records show the department removed Jessalyn and another minor daughter from the family’s home last fall for five weeks while they obtained a psychological evaluation that concluded there was not sufficient evidence to support mental abuse or neglect.

“I wouldn’t want a neurotypical child to be treated the way she was treated,” Tonya McEwen said. “And then to retaliate on us because we are advocating for her and trying to do the right thing for her is even worse.”

The McEwens will face trial for the delinquency charge on April 20 in Talladega Juvenile Court.

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