150 protest termination of homeschools in Fla.

Sunday, November 29, 2015
 | 
Michael F. Haverluck (OneNewsNow.com)

FloridaMore than 150 homeschoolers crowded into an overflowed Santa Rosa County school board meeting earlier this month to protest the school district’s termination of several homeschool programs.

The Santa Rosa County School District (SRCSD) cancelled a number of families’ homeschool programs shortly after they moved into the county. In addition, school officials threatened to prosecute the homeschool families  in court with criminal charges.

Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) Staff Attorney Tj Schmidt said the district’s rationale behind such action against the homeschoolers is not only harassment, but an overstepping of its authority — a sentiment taken by the scores of home educators showing up at the meeting.

“These threats against homeschoolers occurred because the superintendent is insisting that parents demonstrate proof of residency before their home education programs can be recognized as legitimate,” Schmidt informed. “During the public forum portion of the meeting, school board members heard from passionate homeschool parents (and at least one student) about this overreach.”

Tightening its grip

Schmidt reports that times have changed in Florida regarding the treatment of homeschoolers.

“Homeschool parents who had lived in Santa Rosa County for many years spoke fondly of the past relationship with school officials and lamented what had happened to change this attitude,” the homeschool attorney explained. “New homeschool families spoke of their anxiety when receiving the district’s threatening letter and demand to enroll their children in public or private school within three days.”

For more details about SRCSD’s initial targeting of new homeschoolers in the county, read OneNewsNow’s article “Florida district moves to eliminate homeschools.”

Speaking along with Schmidt at the school board meeting was local HSLDA-affiliated attorney Stephen Pitre, who concurred with Schmidt’s assertion that Florida law is very clear when it comes to what information the public school superintendent can require from homeschool parents once they have established home eduction programs for their children.

“While a parent must provide the names, addresses, and birthdates of all children they are teaching at home to ‘the district school superintendent of the county in which the parent resides,’ there is no requirement that a parent prove residency,” HSLDA attorneys maintained. “The notice comes after the home education program is established and the local school district has no authority to refuse to recognize the program.”

The Purcellville, Virginia-based legal homeschool group declared that there is only one specific case when the district can demand certain documentation.

“The only time proof of residency could legitimately be required is if the homeschool student was seeking to enroll in public school part-time (for sports, dual enrollment, etc.),” HSLDA stated.

SRCSD Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick spoke at the board meeting after members of the county’s homeschool community gave their testimony about the district’s alleged unjust treatment of homeschoolers who are new to Santa Rosa County. HSLDA noted that the superintendent merely read from a prepared statement that had no legal backing.

“While he mentioned his support of homeschooling and acknowledged that most homeschool families are doing a good job, he continued to insist that the district was within its authority to require that new homeschool families provide proof of residency in order to be seen as legitimate,” HSLDA reported. “It appears that he believes homeschool students are enrolled or registered within the district when a parent submits a home education program. This is not accurate.”

Impending positive outcome?

However, HSLDA shared that there were some optimistic takeaways from the meeting given by the other side.

“On a more positive note, the chairman and at least one other school board member promised to look into this situation,” the homeschool group added. “They appeared genuinely concerned about the threats in the letters from the district. It was obvious that they were unaware of what was being sent out. While the superintendent stated that the letters simply followed state law, this is not accurate.”

According to HSLDA, Florida law grants the SRCSD the authority to put an end to homeschool programs under just one circumstance.

“The only authority under Florida law for a school district to ‘terminate’ a home education program and require parents to enroll their child in a public or private school within three days is when a child has developed a pattern of nonattendance,” the Christian attorneys contend. “And this only can occur when a child who has been enrolled in public school misses five days of classes out of 30 or 10 days out of 90.”

Even when a home education program is justifiably terminated — which allegedly isn’t the case with the homeschool programs recently terminated by school officials —  the district must give chances to reinstate.

“A parent who then seeks to homeschool such a child is required to submit a portfolio review to a committee of school officials and home education parents,” the legal experts informed. “The portfolio must be submitted every 30 days until the committee is satisfied that the program is in compliance with Florida Statute 1002.41. If the parent in this situation fails to provide a portfolio or demonstrate compliance, then, and only then, can a school district terminate the program and order the child into a public or private school. None of the families in Santa Rosa were in this situation.”

HSLDA considered this month’s meeting a success in that it united a large group of homeschoolers against a problematic school policy and gave district officials more negative publicity for its unlawful harassment of homeschool families. Its attorneys also maintain that influential allies with government connections will also prove advantageous to homeschoolers as the matter moves forward.

“While we expect the threats of criminal prosecution to stop, thanks in part to ongoing media coverage of the district’s actions, [we] intend to continue monitoring the situation [and] keep working closely with … the Home Education Foundation,” lawyers from HSLDA concluded. “[HEF President Brenda Dickson] was able to meet with Santa Rosa lobbyists and several legislators in order to bring more focus on the issue.

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