Tragic deaths of home-schooled kids rarely lead to new rules
KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — A Detroit brother and sister vanished more than two years before they were found dead in a freezer in their home, and an 11-year-old Florida girl disappeared more than a year before she, too, turned up in a family freezer. And a 7-year-old Kansas boy hadn’t been seen for more than a month before authorities found the gruesome remains of a child in a pigsty inside his family’s barn.
All of them were home-schooled, but despite their disappearances going unnoticed for so long, opposition from the government-wary home-schooling community means it’s unlikely these states will start keeping closer tabs on home-schooled children.
“It’s largely a conservative thing, but even progressive home-schoolers tend to resist oversight,” said Rachel Coleman, co-founder of the nonprofit Coalition for Responsible Home Education. “Part of it is because there is an assumption that parents always know what’s best for their children.”
The most recent case, at a home near Kansas City, Kansas, is still being investigated and authorities said it could be weeks before they positively identify the child whose remains officers found in the barn. The officers were responding to a reported domestic disturbance at the home the day before Thanksgiving and were told of the 7-year-old’s disappearance.
His stepmother, Heather Jones, told The Associated Press that her husband, Michael A. Jones, abused her and their son, Adrian, and that she feared he was going to kill her and their six daughters because she found out he had killed the boy.
Authorities haven’t said when they believe the boy went missing, but they said they think he was abused between May 1 and Sept. 28.
Michael Jones has been charged with child abuse, aggravated battery and aggravated assault with a firearm. No charges have been filed in connection with his son’s disappearance or the discovery of the remains. He didn’t have an attorney as of Friday, but his father has described him as a “caring and outstanding person” who wouldn’t hurt a child.
Such cases are horrific but they don’t typically lead to new restrictions on home-schooling, which many parents see as their deeply personal right, said Rob Kunzman, director of the International Center for Home Education Research at Indiana University.
“They oftentimes create a short-term effort to increase regulation in the state where it happens, but rarely does this result in increased regulation because of the influence of home-school advocacy groups,” he said.
Although the number of home-schooled students jumped nationwide to about 1.7 million between 2003 and 2012, they still represent just over 3 percent of all students, Coleman said, adding that the relatively low number plays into the general public’s apathy toward home-schooling issues.
For home-schoolers, the emotionally charged argument against additional oversight is that parents, not the government, know what’s best for their children.
“As many as two-thirds are home-schooling in part for religious reasons,” Coleman said. “Part of that for conservative Christians is that God has given that child to the parents, not the state. The state doesn’t own my child, God has entrusted my child to me.”
Eleven states do not require parents to notify state or local officials that their children will be home-schooled, while 10 states require parents to file a one-time notice when they first start home schooling, but nothing further, Coleman said.
The other 29 states require parents to file an annual notice of home schooling. The information required to be included varies from state to state, with some requiring only the name of the home school and its administrator, while others require basic curriculum plans, student names and ages, and in some cases a copy of each student’s birth certificate.
Dr. Barbara Knox, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said research she and five other pediatricians conducted on the torture of children found that of the 28 young victims studied, nearly half were home-schooled and an additional 29 percent weren’t allowed to attend school at all.
“For over half, few individuals outside the abuser(s) knew of the child’s existence,” researchers wrote. “This social isolation typically involved preventing the child from attending school or daycare.”
Knox said she would like to see uniform home-schooling laws across the country that at least keep tabs on children with open or previous Child Protective Services cases who are removed from school to be home-schooled.
For the 47 percent of children in her study who were removed from their schools to be home-schooled, it “appears to have been designed to further isolate the child and typically occurred after closure of a previously opened CPS case,” the researchers wrote.
Earlier this year, a Michigan lawmaker proposed creating a state registry of all home-schooled children after Stoni Ann Blair and Stephen Gage Berry were found in a freezer in their home. Investigators believe Stephen was 9 when he died in August 2012 and that Stoni was 13 when she died the following May.
The measure by state Rep. Stephanie Chang, a Detroit Democrat, never made it out of committee.
In response to Chang’s proposal, a group called the Michigan Freedom Fund issued a news release blasting the lawmaker for concocting a big-government scheme “designed to force and frighten parents into enrolling their children in government schools and removing their freedom to decide how their children are educated_this time by accusing homeschool parents of being murderers-in-waiting.”
In Kansas, which sees itself as a local-control state, it’s left up to parents to determine how to educate their children, said Denise Kahler, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.
“That’s always been a big thing for us,” she said.
Rep. Ron Highland, a Wamego Republican who is chairman of the House Education Committee, said it’s unlikely the Kansas Legislature will spend any time working to strengthen home-schooling rules.
“We have to ask ourselves, ‘what about personal responsibility?’” Highland said. “No matter how many layers of laws and regulations, some people are going to do some bad things. That’s just a fact of life.”
Florida state Rep. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, proposed changes in his state’s home-school law after an 11-year-old girl who had been missing for more than a year was found in October in a freezer that her mother left at the home of family members.
Steube and local leaders are working on legislation that would add an in-person check on some at-risk children by a certified teacher on either a semester or quarterly basis. Home-schoolers have lashed out at the proposal as unnecessary, The Bradenton Herald reported.