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Homeschool debate

Back to School | How to keep a few bad apples from spoiling the bushel

Issue: "Back to School," Sept. 6, 2014

Some former homeschool students are speaking out against what they consider an abusive or neglectful upbringing. Last year they began posting their stories on a website called Homeschoolers Anonymous, alleging mistreatment from parents ranging from sexual molestation to what they describe as “spiritual abuse.” The stories vary widely, but echo a common charge: Homeschooling, they claim, gave their parents opportunity to abuse, “brainwash,” or neglect them.

One of those former students, Heather Doney, 31, co-founded the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE) to advocate increased state regulation of homeschoolers. Doney worries her home state of Louisiana, for example, allows homeschooling households to operate with little accountability. “My parents registered as a private school, and no one ever checked on us again,” she said.

She has reason for concern. She still counts on her fingers and double-checks the tip she leaves on restaurant tables. As the oldest of nine children, she remembers growing up homeschooled and being the only child who could read: Her sister next in age didn’t become proficient until she turned 12. Doney had all she could stand at 12 years old when a neighborhood boy ridiculed her inability to multiply or divide. “Ha, ha!” he laughed. “You’re going to spend your life flipping burgers!” She pleaded to her grandparents for help, and they began tutoring Doney.

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Her mother, Sandra Doney, agrees their home environment was neglectful and abusive in some ways, and said Heather “got the brunt of it, being the oldest one. … In trying to do the right thing, I probably overdid some of the discipline. … There was just a lot of emotional turmoil.” Heather Doney’s parents are now divorced, and she admits that “the average homeschooling family is fine. … I’m looking at [families] who are doing terrible things in the name of homeschooling, hiding behind homeschooling to do it.” That’s what her Homeschooling’s Invisible Children’s website documents: criminal cases of neglect and abuse.

The existence of such cases, and the growing reach of the anti-homeschooling websites, raises questions that homeschooling defenders are primed to answer. Educational neglect? Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute in Salem, Ore., said most studies by dozens of researchers since 1985 show the average homeschooler scoring in the 65th to 80th percentile on standardized tests. (The national school average is the 50th percentile.)

What about abuse? The Health and Human Services “Child Maltreatment 2011” report noted that 4.1 percent of U.S. children were involved in abuse investigations in 2011. A 2004 study from the U.S. Department of Education found about 7 percent of eighth- to 11th-grade public-school students claiming a fellow student, teacher, or school employee had touched or contacted them in a sexual manner, without their consent. Yet only 1.2 percent of Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) members called for help in dealing with child protective services investigations—sometimes for issues as trivial as a messy house or a missed paperwork filing deadline. That figure isn’t scientific, but it suggests abuse and neglect is far less common among homeschoolers.

Nevertheless, stories on the Homeschoolers Anonymous website brim with pain, anger, and bitterness. Many posts are anonymous, making the accounts hard to verify, but organization co-founder Ryan Stollar told me by email, “We are creating a growing community of misfits, survivors, and allies.” One series of posts titled “Homeschoolers Are Out” spotlights homeschool graduates who have declared themselves to be gay or transsexual. He said his organization “enthusiastically supports” homeschooling as long as it is “used responsibly.”

One of Homeschoolers Anonymous’ biggest targets is the Virginia-based HSLDA—homeschooling’s top ally since 1983. Last year Homeschoolers Anonymous launched an online campaign that claimed the organization’s defense of homeschool parents had weakened child abuse investigations. It called on HSLDA to tell its 80,000 member families how to recognize and report abuse, and HSLDA did add a section to its website defining child abuse and outlining how to address it.

HSLDA has long seen less government regulation of homeschoolers as best for parents and students—but in January Stollar and 10 other homeschool alumni traveled to Richmond, Va., to vocalize their support for House Joint Resolution No. 92, a measure to re-evaluate the state’s religious exemption from compulsory education. HSLDA leaders were also in Richmond to lobby—against the resolution.

“It’s obvious to me that homeschool parents love their kids and don’t want to abuse them,” said J. Michael Smith, president of HSLDA. “The reason they’re homeschooling is because they don’t want to neglect their child’s education.” Both Smith and Darren Jones, a staff attorney at the organization, agreed that abuse and neglect cases do exist within some homeschooling families, but argue their number is small. HSLDA staffers call them “fake homeschoolers.”

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