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Massachusetts Homeschoolers Survive Custody Threat

  • 2003 6 Jun
  • COMMENTS
Massachusetts Homeschoolers Survive Custody Threat

(CNSNews.com) - Homeschoolers in Massachusetts got a taste of an unusual yet threatening episode last week when social service workers tried to forcefully administer a standardized test to two homeschooled teenagers from Waltham.

 

While the situation abated after a seven-hour standoff Thursday, home schooling advocates warned that it certainly did the growing movement no favors. They said it also demonstrated why Massachusetts remains one of the most resistant states when it comes to rights for homeschoolers.

 

For more than six years, George and Kim Bryant have fought the Waltham Public Schools over their rights to educate their children at home. Last week the two sides locked horns when the Department of Social Services showed up to determine the students' grade levels.

 

The Home School Legal Defense Association, which keeps tabs on laws in all 50 states, fought similar battles in some Midwest states in the 1980s, said J. Michael Smith, the organization's president.

 

Back then, such an episode wouldn't have been that unusual, he said. But today, 30 states have laws on the books that are favorable to homeschoolers. Massachusetts, Smith said, remains one of the worst states, along with New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

 

"It sounds like the school district is saying that it's irrelevant whether you're teaching your kids or whether they're educated, you're just simply not doing what we tell you to do," Smith said. "We saw that years ago. It happened over and over again."

 

The Massachusetts law, which is based on a 1987 state Supreme Court ruling, poses problems because it gives each of the 283 school districts authority to set down its own rules.

 

"These school districts are pretty much their own boss," Smith said. "They have the discretion to do what they want. You could have two different schools, and one parent could be jumping through all the hoops the school district wants, and the other school could say it's not interested in what you do."

 

As unfair as this might seem, Smith said there are protections built into the law and simple ways to lessen the burden on parents. For instance, when it comes to determining a homeschooled student's progress - the sticking point in the dispute involving the Bryant family - the state could offer guidelines rather than leave it up to individual schools.

 

Schools objecting to parents' teaching methods, meanwhile, are required to prove that the students would be better off in a public school setting, according to the Massachusetts Supreme Court's ruling.

 

While the Bryant case might sound threatening to all homeschooling families, Sophia Sayigh, a parent who homeschools two children and runs Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts, said most parents don't have problems.

 

"It's a very atypical situation," she said. "I think this could be intimidating to people. But if you're a new homeschooler and you want to home school in Massachusetts, as long as you follow the school's guidelines, you'll be in compliance, and you won't have social services knocking at your door."

 

For the past eight years, Sayigh has homeschooled her children. She said she's never had a problem with her local school district and predicted that 99.9 percent of other parents wouldn't encounter the type of situation facing the Bryants either.

 

Even George Bryant, father of teenagers Nick and Nyssa, said he doesn't know why the Waltham Public Schools has been so aggressive with his family. He said he has provided the school with progress reports, but the district found them unacceptable.

 

"We are a family that will obey all laws," Bryant said. "[The school district has] never shown us a law that really applies properly to this case that indicates that we've done anything unlawful."

 

Waltham Superintendent Susan I. Parrella did not return a call seeking comment. It was the district's final day of classes.

 

The Department of Social Services isn't looking to remove the children from the Bryants, even though it was granted legal custody in 2001 on a judge's order, agency spokesman Michael McCormick said. He added that it's going be an issue for the family and school district to resolve.

 

"We actually didn't want to be involved in the family's life at all," McCormick said. "We're trying to assist the court and monitor the case. From what little testing has been done in the past, everything appears to be OK."

 

While Bryant said there's no way to predict what will happen next, he said the matter seems to have subsided since his family has been in the media spotlight. Besides, his son Nick turns 16 in February, meaning he'll get to make his own educational decisions at that point.

 

Until then, however, the family must continue to meet monthly with a social worker to make sure the children are in good hands - a practice that Bryant called annoying, but not overly intrusive.