District Fails to Process Homeschool Notices So CPS Investigates Families
by Helaina Bock • September 25, 2018
Imagine discovering that while you were out running errands, the government had come to investigate your family. This was Julie Wheaton’s startling reality when she arrived home one spring afternoon.
She quickly scanned the card the Department of Children and Families (DCF)—an agency that investigates child abuse and neglect—had left for her. They had come to search her home. Heart racing, the homeschooling mother forced herself to remain calm. Julie contacted Home School Legal Defense Association.
The DCF’s visit had nothing to do with child abuse. The investigator had come because the local public school superintendent failed to process Julie’s homeschool approval letter. Under Massachusetts law, parents must submit information about their home school for the superintendent to assess. Since the superintendent had yet to approve the Wheatons’ homeschool plan, the district had sent the DCF to their door.
Just as she had done for the past 10-plus years, Julie submitted detailed progress reports to the superintendent. Previously, this would have satisfied the school district’s requirement. But without warning, the Worcester Public Schools had changed its policy for the 2017-2018 school year, requiring approval letters before the start of the school year and “more detailed” information than what is typically included in progress reports. Families who did not comply could face prosecution for truancy.
However, the same institution that required the speedy acquisition of approval letters refused to process them. Despite sending their information to the school district months in advance, homeschooling families waited for months to hear back from the WPS.
This hostility toward homeschoolers shocked families throughout Massachusetts. Another homeschooling mother from Worcester, Kenza Dekar, who faced similar issues explained, “[w]e had always proceeded with the assumption of approval.” Now, homeschool parents feared truancy charges as they waited for months to obtain approval. “It was scary because at the time, I wasn’t fully aware of my rights,” Kenza revealed.
Helping with the Process
Thankfully, neither Julie Wheaton nor families like hers had to fight this battle alone. HSLDA walked them through every step of the process—from helping draft progress reports and letters to the WPS, to sending lawyers to support them at their court hearings.
HSLDA also wrote to the superintendent, explaining that direct referral of cases to the DCF is unlawful. The proper procedure for truancy charges is to send a truant officer—not to send a investigator to the home.
According to HSLDA attorney Mike Donnelly, these intrusions “[were] extremely traumatic for these families and quite unnecessary considering their willingness to comply with the law. . . . Families should not be referred to DCF for investigation relating to school absences when the school district is in the process of reviewing a homeschool notice.”
HSLDA lawyers further explained that truancy threats are inappropriate, given homeschool parents’ willingness to send the WPS their paperwork in a timely manner. Case law clearly establishes the sufficiency of the progress reports that parents have always sent to the superintendent. Furthermore, WPS should notify affected families of any change in policy and include them in their decision-making process.
Taking a Stand
Encouraged by HSLDA’s legal support, Massachusetts homeschoolers refused to cower in the face of the superintendent’s intimidation. In August 2018, more than a dozen homeschooling parents came to the committee meeting, several of whom spoke out about the committee’s unfair requirements.
This meeting represented a great step forward. Julie Wheaton, who also attended, explained that the school district backed down when the homeschooling community “[a]ll banded together with HSLDA behind us.”
Afterwards, the superintendent immediately approved several homeschooling families who had been awaiting approval for months. Further, the WPS clearly posted on its website the forms of information required for approval, including progress reports.
Despite these victories, more reform is needed. Mike Donnelly says, “To truly protect home educators long-term, the WPS needs to develop a clear policy governing homeschooling that respects parents’ right to direct the upbringing of their children.”
This kind of problem is not unique to Massachusetts. Throughout the country, HSLDA attorneys represent families facing officials who deviate from legal procedures when dealing with homeschool issues. “We will continue to support families like the Wheatons and the Dekars and, in doing so, help preserve educational freedom for all American families,” promises Donnelly.