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September 18, 2012

On the Case:

Appeals Judge Overturns Parents’ Truancy Convictions

Senior Counsel Jim Mason is a member of HSLDA’s litigation team. He and his wife homeschool.

As homeschool families begin another academic year, Home School Legal Defense Association remains in the battle to secure freedom. Last week, a Nebraska appeals judge ruled that the trial court misinterpreted the law when it wrongly convicted the Thacker family of violating Nebraska’s compulsory attendance law. This decision is an unqualified victory for the Thackers, and yet another advance for homeschool freedom. Unless the state decides to appeal, the Thackers’ convictions will be overturned and their record will be wiped clean.

The Thackers moved to Nebraska in 2011. In preparation for the 2011–2012 school year, they reviewed the compulsory attendance statute and discovered that Nebraska, like many other states, requires parents to provide notice to the state when they decide to homeschool. For first-time filers, notice is due 30 days prior to when home instruction begins, and then by July 15 for each subsequent year.

Because their living situation was unsettled, the Thackers decided to start their school year in early November, while still leaving them plenty of time to meet Nebraska’s minimum instructional requirements by the end of the school year. Accordingly, they filed their notice at the end of September, 30 days before their homeschool program was to begin.

Anonymous Tip

Meanwhile, local law enforcement had received an anonymous tip that the Thacker children were not in school. A sheriff’s deputy visited the Thackers’ home to investigate charges of truancy, threatened to take the children unless they were immediately enrolled in public school, and handed the case over to the county attorney for prosecution. Although HSLDA informed the county attorney that the family had complied with Nebraska law, the state decided to go to trial anyway.

Even though there was no evidence that the Thackers’ proposed school schedule would fail to meet Nebraska’s instruction standards, the state managed to convince the trial court judge that the Thackers had acted illegally because their children were not being homeschooled every day the local public school was in session. Despite following the text of the law, the Thackers were convicted and dubbed “lawbreakers.” Because we believed that the trial judge had misinterpreted the law, HSLDA agreed to represent the Thackers on appeal.

Justice Served

On September 10, an appellate court in Nebraska reversed the Thacker’s convictions. Judge Doyle agreed with HSLDA that the Thackers had not violated Nebraska law, because “neither the statute nor the rules and regulations of the Nebraska Department of Education provide any deadline for the initial establishment of an exempt school.” The court also rejected the state’s argument that homeschoolers must be “enrolled” while the local public school is in session. Because the Thackers had complied with the law in every respect, Judge Doyle ordered both convictions reversed.

While HSLDA is grateful for a favorable decision, the Thacker case is also a reminder that the battle for freedom is never truly over: there is always more work to do. While homeschooling is legal in all 50 states, parents still encounter resistance from local government officials when they decide to teach their children at home—even when they are following the letter of the law.