Monday, January 14, 2008

Is Homeschooling Really To Blame?

On January 12, the New York Times printed an article about a mentally ill woman who was recently discovered to have murdered her four daughters. The article was titled, "Lack of Supervision Noted in Deaths of Home-Schooled," and it began with these paragraphs:
Ten states and the District of Columbia, where Banita M. Jacks was charged on Thursday with four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of her four daughters, have no regulations regarding home schooling, not even the requirement that families notify the authorities that they are educating their children at home.

The lack of supervision of the home-schooling process, some experts say, may have made it easier last year for Ms. Jacks to withdraw her children from school and the prying eyes of teachers, social workers and other professionals who otherwise might have detected signs of abuse and neglect of the girls.

When I read this, as a homeschooling mom, I was obviously disturbed. It struck me as unlikely that Ms. Jacks was really homeschooling. The further I read in the article, the more I wondered whether it was really the lack of supervision of homeschoolers that was responsible for these girls' deaths.

Apparently I'm not the only person who was concerned about this. Kate, over at "I Think, Therefore I Blog," posted this excellent response to the NYT article. She notes that in fact, five different government agencies had contact with this mother and family during the months surrounding the murders, and none of them chose to act. She also points out that, as noted in the article, Ms. Jacks was required by DC law to submit an "intent to withdraw" letter, which she never did. In fact, her children were not homeschooled - they were truant; and the social workers and police officers who were called out to investigate simply chose to use her claim to be homeschooling as an excuse to ignore her case.

Kate homeschools in Kansas, which requires almost no supervision of homeschoolers. But Ms. Jacks' failure to submit her paperwork would have been unacceptable even there, since it is required that homeschoolers notify the district that they are homeschooling.

I live in Colorado, which requires substantially more supervision. Here, not only is notice required, but our students are required to be tested in grades 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11; and I am required to keep attendance and immunization records as well as teach certain specific subjects. The increased supervision required by the state of Colorado would not have prevented Ms. Jacks from murdering her children, since they only left school in spring of 2007.

Even in the most highly regulated states, those increased regulations would not have stopped Ms. Jacks from murdering her children. No state requires that outsiders visit homeschoolers' homes to supervise on a regular basis - that is an unconstitutional violation of privacy. The most highly regulated states require parents to submit a portfolio each year of the child's work; Ms. Jacks' failure to submit the portfolio at the end of the last school year would have come too late, especially by the time it was investigated and prosecuted. Even if a state did require regular supervisory visits, it would not prevent a parent from committing murder. Ms. Jacks' behavior had already triggered multiple visits from government agencies who could have done something to prevent these deaths; another visit by another person would not have made social workers or police officers any more likely to intervene in an uncomfortable or possibly dangerous situation.

There is simply no amount of regulation that could have prevented this tragedy. Enforcement of existing laws regarding suspicions of child abuse might have proved helpful; further regulation of homeschooling could have done nothing.

Kate's final paragraphs provide an excellent summary of the truth about this case:
In this particular tragedy, the media is attempting to blame homeschooling by saying that it has an inherent “lack of supervision”. The fact is that Banita Jacks’ family had more contact with government agencies than most homeschooling families, and every single one of those agencies dropped the ball.

Homeschooling is not at fault for the deaths of these little girls. A lack of supervision is not to blame for their deaths. The freedom and ease with which families in ten states and Washington, D.C., can elect to homeschool their children are not to blame for these deaths.

Banita Jacks is to blame, as are all of the officials and agencies which did have contact with her but did nothing. They had evidence that she was mentally ill and failing to provide for her children, and they failed to follow up on that evidence.

What they have no evidence of is their claim that Banita Jacks was ever truly a homeschooling mom.

The prejudices of the New York Times and their "authorities" notwithstanding, the only way to have prevented the murders of these children was for those government agencies already in contact with the family to have made different decisions. The fact that she claimed to be homeschooling should not have prevented them from making those decisions. Those girls were public school students, all of them; when they dropped out of sight, absent a notice of intent to withdraw, the school should have pursued action.

Instead of accepting responsibility for their failure to act, authorities representing the position of public education, with the support of the New York Times, are blaming homeschooling and recommending more regulation. In truth, homeschooling families do not require more supervision; school authorities need to learn to discern between true homeschoolers and truants who claim to be homeschooling in order to avoid school involvement. Does this require some adjustment on the part of the schools? Perhaps. But given that the Supreme Court has determined that parents may determine how their children are education, it's the school's responsibility to make that adjustment.


Shawna said...

First, it bothers me that we as parents need to inform anyone of anything regarding our long as we are loving, caring parents who are not abusing or neglecting our children, and I think that is most of us.

But I do hope that you will submit this post to the Editor of the NY Times and any local paper in Jack's area. You may have to take out reference to another blog, but your points alone speak volumes.

I suggested Dana at Principled Discovery do the same. The more that is pointed out in a non-defensive manner, the more people and journalist and politicians and educators will listen. It is the emotional, defensive homeschooling advocates that usually get the attention and that does not serve the homeschooling community's best interest. So please consider submitting your post to them via email :-)

Marcy Muser said...

Thanks, Shawna! I will definitely try to do that. I might see if our local paper here (nowhere near DC) published this article, too, and send it to them if they did. (You know how the AP will pick up an article and newspapers all over the country will publish the same article.)

I agree, it bothers me, too, that we have to notify "authorities" - but as long as we don't have to get permission from them, I can live with it, if only for the sake of kids like these. I don't think abusive parents ought to be able to get "off the hook" with social services simply by claiming to be homeschooling, as Ms. Jacks did. From what I've seen, few parents of truant kids have the forethought to submit a notice of intent; a simple records check ought to clarify which parents are really homeschooling and which are only claiming that to get social services off their backs.

Thanks again for the thoughts!

miche said...

I think Shawna succinctly sums up the most important point in her first paragraph.

Don't count on the newspapers of this country to get it though. The more I live and learn, the more I become convinced that control- not education- is the goal and the media of this country is just another tool to be used in the pursuit.