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They Changed the Rules, Then Blamed the Families

by Jim Mason • November 13, 2018

For the past ten years, Julie Wheaton has homeschooled her children in Massachusetts. One spring day after running errands and returning home, she saw a notice left at the door.

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 and they urgently wanted to speak with her.

Imagine discovering that while you and your kids were out, the government had come to investigate your family. This was the startling reality facing this homeschooling veteran. But even though she felt shaken and with her heart racing, Julie forced herself to remain calm and contacted Home School Legal Defense Association.

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The DCF’s visit had nothing to do with child abuse. The investigator had come because the local public school superintendent simply failed to process Julie’s homeschool approval letter.

Under Massachusetts law, parents must submit information about their homeschool for the superintendent to assess. Since the superintendent had yet to approve the Wheatons’ homeschool plan, the school district had sent the DCF to their door.

Delays and Disapproval

The turn of events left Julie shocked and dismayed. She had filed her detailed progress report, just like she had done every year, for the past 10-plus years. 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 were not properly informed of the change, and yet could face prosecution for truancy if they did not comply with the new rules that they knew nothing about.

Adding even more confusion, 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.

There is a growing hostility toward homeschooling 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.

HSLDA on Their Side

Thankfully, neither Julie Wheaton nor families like hers had to fight this battle alone.

Thanks in part to the support provided from the Homeschool Freedom Fund, HSLDA lawyers were able to walk these families 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 a DCF investigator to the home.

According to my colleague, 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.”

In fact, Donnelly added, case law clearly establishes the sufficiency of the progress reports that parents have always sent to the superintendent. Furthermore, the school district had the obligation to properly notify affected families of any change in policy and include them in their decision-making process.

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 presented a united front. “We all banded together with HSLDA behind us,” she said.

Afterwards, the superintendent immediately approved several homeschooling families who had been waiting for months. Further, the WPS clearly posted on its website the information required for approval, including progress reports.

More Work to Do

Thank you for your vital role in helping us secure these victories!

While we are very thankful for the result, the truth is that more reform is needed. 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.

Because of your generous support for the Homeschool Freedom Fund, we are able to continue to fight for families like the Wheatons and the Dekars and, in doing so, help preserve educational freedom for all American families. Thank you for standing with us while we continue to make homeschooling possible.

No homeschool family should face this kind of harrassment. Give today.

Jim Mason

Vice President of Litigation and Development

Jim is an attorney and litigator who has helped HSLDA win a number of landmark cases establishing and protecting homeschool freedom. Read more.

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