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February 1, 2006

Homeschool Family Grilled in Court for an Hour but Case Won

"Who in their right mind would homeschool?" exclaimed the El Paso, Texas, judge. The Rivera family trembled, wondering what was going to happen next.

Ray and Sharon Rivera had been homeschooling their daughter since 2001. They love homeschooling and their daughter is thriving.

They began their journey to homeschooling upon a recommendation from the principal of the local public school. Because the Riveras helped expose violence and crime at the school, and their 10-year-old daughter was identified as a "whistleblower," the principal warned he could not guarantee the girl's safety. When their daughter was beaten up by bullies, the family decided to heed the principal's advice.

The Riveras withdrew their daughter from public school and filed a letter explaining they intended to homeschool according to the requirements of the Leeper case by establishing a private school at home. Home School Legal Defense Association had advised the Riveras to take this course.

Nonetheless, last week a truant officer came to their door and said they needed to place their child in school. The following day, the "at-risk coordinator" for the public schools came to their house and told the Riveras to put their child in school immediately. The very next day, a police officer arrived and served the family with a summons to appear in court in two days.

The family contacted HSLDA and attorney Chris Klicka scrambled to provide a defense since the family would be in court the next day. It was too late to fly to El Paso, Texas, or to hire a local lawyer who could represent the family. So Klicka prepared a letter and memorandum explaining Texas homeschool law and faxed it to the court that night.

Klicka asked the judge to dismiss the case because the family was legally homeschooling according to the Texas Supreme Court's decision in Leeper. Klicka also explained that there was no requirement for the family to notify school officials of their decision to homeschool, even though they had done so by letter in 2001. Klicka further pointed out that the burden of proving that the family is not educating their child is on the school district, and that the family is not required to have their curriculum approved by the school district.

The Riveras arrived in court on the morning of January 26 and waited as the judge levied heavy penalties and jailed mothers in other truancy cases. This made the Riveras nervous. But they were confident in their right to homeschool and that it was worth fighting for their daughter.

When it was time for the Rivera case to be called, the judge looked up and said, "Does anyone know the law on homeschooling?" The truant officer and the at-risk coordinator both shook their heads. Mrs. Rivera then asked the judge to read Klicka's letter and memorandum. As the judge began silently reading it, he said, "I need to read this out loud to everyone."

He did so, then said: "I think I will dismiss this case. What do you think?"

School officials objected. The at-risk coordinator said she was never notified of the Riveras' intent to homeschool, and that during visits to the family home she never saw the child being homeschooled.

Sharon Rivera then showed the judge her 2001 letter and returned receipt. She also explained that truancy officials who visited their home had merely looked in through the ground-floor kitchen window, and that the family homeschools upstairs.

At this point the judge asked, "Who in their right mind would homeschool their children?"

The mother then pointed out that the principal recommended they homeschool because of the violence at public school. The judge got a little teary-eyed but continued to grill the family.

"Isn't this child isolated?" he asked.

The mother described all the activities that their daughter was involved in and that she spends time socializing with her peers.

Then the judge asked how she teaches her child. Sharon was able to show the books she uses and samples of the child's work. The judge looked at the books and said, "How can you give grades to your child?" She explained how teachers' manuals worked and that this was a method used by many homeschoolers. Sharon held her own explaining how well homeschooling worked for their family.

Finally, she told the judge that her relative had turned her in to the school district. At this point the judge dismissed the case.

Then he looked over at the truant officer and said, "I don't want you ever again to serve a summons and charge somebody with truancy and make them come into the court the next day!"

The hour-long case left the Riveras relieved. They were so happy that they had been delivered and they were thankful that HSLDA provided a defense for them. This was certainly a team effort with a virtual lawyer and a mom who loved her child and would not give up.