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State schools über alles

International | European homeschoolers-few in number-face inspections, fines, and in one family's case, a police raid

Issue: "Supreme arrogance," July 8, 2000

In the town of Schloss Holte-Stukenbroch, Germany, three months ago, three police officers forced open Johann Harder's living room window and stormed through the house. They overturned furniture, pawed through closets, shouted at the children, broke Mr. Harder's camera when he tried to photograph the terrifying ordeal, and ripped seven-year-old Irene, crying hysterically, from the arms of her mother. They eventually left, taking 11-year-old Anna with them. Mr. Harder now faces thousands of dollars in fines and possibly jail.

His crime?

The Harders homeschool their children.

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In America homeschooling is rapidly gaining public acceptance, buoyed by recent media reports of how homeschooled children earned the top three places at this year's National Spelling Bee. But in Europe homeschooling is still far outside the mainstream. Most countries tolerate it, but none encourage it and in some, like Germany, it is illegal.

Mr. Harder moved his family to Germany five years ago from Russia, where his forefathers fled 200 years ago seeking religious freedom. The Harders have 11 children, the oldest 24 years and the youngest three months old. Written accounts by the Harder family and other witnesses were translated for WORLD by Richard Guenther, an American businessman living in Germany, and his German wife Ingrid. They describe the Harders as a "very committed" Christian family belonging to a Baptist church.

At first Mr. Harder, a maintenance worker, sent his children to the public schools, although the sex education, acceptance of homosexuality, and "occultism" (in-class meditation sessions) troubled him. Last fall he began teaching them a correspondence curriculum at home. This was illegal-education laws vary among German states, but in general children must attend school, normally defined as an institution located permanently in one place and organized in a traditional manner with certified teachers. The laws make no provision for homeschooling. "In school, the consciences are being destroyed," he wrote, "but for us, conscience is number one!"

City authorities promptly and repeatedly threatened Mr. Harder with fines and worse, but he held fast. In November a municipal court awarded custody of his children to a local lawyer, but an appeals court immediately overturned the order on the grounds that the children faced no immediate danger.

The threats continued, but authorities delayed further action until the Harders' newest baby, Samuel, arrived on March 18. After that, Mr. Harder wrote, "for about two weeks we lived like gypsies, getting up early with the four school-age children and studying in the forest. The third time the police came [March 30], they caught us at home...."

At about 8:00 a.m., Mr. Harder left his keys inside and stepped out to meet the officers and a school official, while Mrs. Harder locked the door behind him. When he refused to surrender the children, they broke in and began searching. Timo, 15, and Nelli, 13, sneaked out an attic window and then dashed through the forest to the home of their married sister, Lilli. The officers found Irene and Anna cowering under a quilt.

"And then Mama came," wrote Irene. "And then three police came and ripped me away from Mama. Two police dragged me downstairs. Then I ran to Papa, and hung onto him tightly. And then Papa and I went into a bedroom. Then the police wanted to pull me from Papa's arms."

Giving up on Irene, who was frantic, the police drove Anna to the local public school. Mr. Harder followed in his own vehicle. The principal informed the father that if he intended to snatch Anna out of class, he must leave immediately. He did and came back to pick her up after school.

Anna has not been back since, nor have the police returned. Mrs. Harder was so traumatized she stopped producing milk for her infant. Mayor Hubert Erlichlandwehr, who authorized the raid was executed, has said that the father should be "temporarily taken out of society."

That may happen yet. An April 6 letter from the Mayor threatens Mr. Harder with fines of $250 per child per day. If he does not pay (and Mr. Harder could not afford such fines) he may be jailed and lose custody of his children. Mr. Harder was scheduled to appear in court on June 16, but the hearing has been postponed indefinitely.

Mr. Guenther says that German Christians are "just now beginning to awaken to the climate in the schools." There are probably only a few hundred homeschooling families in the country, many "underground" to avoid harassment. He believes that Mayor Erlichlandwehr is so determined to enforce Germany's compulsory attendance laws because he regards the issue as a power struggle and he wants to discourage other families from homeschooling. The Mayor noted in a letter to the Harders that the system is designed to produce a "German mindset" that promotes "fitting in" and submission to the state.

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