‘Riley’s Rule’ Seeks to Let Students with Serious Illness Advance Their Education

Union Member Partners with State Rep. to Help Her Son

Representative Jon Rosenthal and Riley Schaudel pose together near the Capitol rotunda. They are both wearing face masks.
Riley Schaudel, left, with Rep. Jon Rosenthal. (Photo provided by Rep. Rosenthal)

Riley Schaudel didn’t know he would end up advocating for a state House bill named after him.

The youngest in his family, he spent years wrestling with extremely challenging undiagnosed health issues. Not being able to figure out why he was so underweight, his family juggled constant medical appointments. His specialist was a full 45-minute drive in each direction. It was hard to keep anything straight, with Riley’s family trying to balance his regular hospital admittance with lost days of work and lost days of school.

No magic solution arrived either when Riley finally received a diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease and assembled a treatment plan. His need for regular doctor visits and medical procedures didn’t end. As he cared for his health, his school absences continued to accrue.

Regardless of everything he faced, his dedication to his education didn’t fade. He worked hard, catching up on assignments from his hospital bed. His mother Wanda, a long-time teacher and campus representative for Cy-Fair AFT, ensured he kept up on all of his assignments as best he could. She wouldn’t let him fall behind.

The campus administration at his middle school, however, didn’t seem to recognize his efforts in the face of his health challenges. They told the Schaudels that Riley may not be able to advance to the next grade level, all due to his attendance, even with a paper trail of medical documentation.

The Schaudels didn’t think that was fair. That’s when Wanda reached out to her local union president, Nikki Cowart, for advice on what was possible in terms of advocacy for her son. Who should they call? What could they do?

Cowart told Wanda, “I just want to remind you this is not a local issue and we know that Riley isn’t the only kid in Texas who suffers from a chronic illness. This is a state of Texas concern. What if we get the superintendent and every single trustee in Cy-Fair to hear from Riley? Let’s see what we can do.”

Cowart and Wanda Schaudel realized that recently elected and union-supported Rep. Jon Rosenthal was the family’s representative for House District 135. Together, they drove to Rosenthal’s office and Riley shared his story with the representative about everything he had been through and the future of his healing.

Rosenthal promised he could do something — that he wouldn’t forget about Riley’s dilemma.

Fast-forward to the start of 87th Texas legislative session. Rosenthal’s chief of staff reached out to the Schaudels. Not only had Rosenthal not forgotten about his constituents, the representative wanted to move legislation forward in the session immediately.

And House Bill 699, “Riley’s Rule,” was born.

The bill, which would apply to the coming 2021-2022 school year, would require school districts to excuse the absence of a student that results from a serious or life-threatening illness or related treatment. It would also require a school district to offer additional counseling, prohibit a district from referring a student to truancy, and bar a school from denying promotion to a student — so long as the failure to meet the requirements was primarily the result of serious or life-threatening illness or related treatment.

Now a junior in high school, Riley was invited to share his personal testimony at the Capitol in Austin in March. He was proud of the opportunity to share his experience.

“This is what the union is all about – protection and advocacy not only for our members but our students,” Cowart said. “This reinforces that local elections matter. Politics are very local. They are very personal. We know that if Riley’s Rule gets passed, this isn’t just a Cy-Fair issue. This is something that will help many chronically ill kids in Texas for years and years to come.”