A Virginia home-schooled student who was prosecuted for truancy has
sued school board officials for violations of her civil rights, charging
the prosecution was “vindictive” and “malicious.”
Melanie Pollard was a junior at
Goochland High School in Goochland County, Va., at the start of the 1998-99 school year when she was diagnosed with “separation anxiety.” At the end of October 1998, her mother, Terry Pollard, decided to keep Melanie home, filing an application for school-supervised “homebound instruction” a month later.
Although included with the application was a psychiatrist’s certification of Melanie’s condition, the school did not respond until Jan. 14, 1999. Mrs. Pollard received written notice on that date that her application had been denied — “because the school was allegedly unable to speak with Melanie’s physician,” according to the complaint filed Wednesday in the Richmond Division of the Eastern District Federal Court of Virginia.
In response to the denial, Mrs. Pollard notified the school of her intent to home-school Melanie and filed a statutory notice to that effect on Jan. 25, 1999.
Like most states, Virginia law specifically includes provisions for parents who wish to educate their children at home, outside of the supervision of traditional schools.
Title 22.1, beginning in section
254.1, states that “any parent who elects to provide home instruction in lieu of school attendance shall annually notify the division superintendent in August of his intention to so instruct the child and provide a description of the curriculum to be followed for the coming year.”
Parents may make such notice after the beginning of the school year, as Mrs. Pollard did, provided they meet certain requirements within 30 days of the notification.
Section 254 B, subdivision 1 states: “Any pupil who, together with his parents, by reason of bona fide religious training or belief is conscientiously opposed to attendance at school” may be excused from compulsory attendance at a public or private school. The code defines “bona fide religious training or belief” by saying the term “does not include essentially political, sociological or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code.”
But there are other exemptions from compulsory attendance that may be claimed by parents who wish to home-school their children, including “concern for such pupil’s health, as verified by competent medical evidence, or by reason of such pupil’s reasonable apprehension for personal safety.”
According to the statute, parents may home-school their children if they meet one of four requirements: a parent must either hold a “baccalaureate degree in any subject from an accredited institution of higher education,” be “a teacher of qualifications prescribed by the Board of Education,” have their children “in a correspondence course approved by the Superintendent of Public Instruction,” or provide “a program of study or curriculum which, in the judgment of the division superintendent, includes the standards of learning objectives adopted by the Board of Education for language arts and mathematics and provides evidence that the parent is able to provide an adequate education for the child.” Despite Mrs. Pollard’s notice of intent to home-school Melanie, school board employee Glenda Leabough, who is identified as a “visiting teacher” on the Goochland schools’ website, told the Juvenile and Domestic Relations court that Melanie was “in need of supervision in that while subject to compulsory attendance [she] is habitually and without justification absent from school,” according to the complaint.
Mother and daughter were summoned to appear in court on Feb. 4, 1999, and one month later, the court determined Melanie not to be truant. The Pollards were informed they could continue home schooling, provided they meet statutory requirements. In August of that year, the court entered an order to that effect.
The Pollards are now charging the Goochland County School Board, Superintendent of Schools Warren Steward and Leabough with “vindictive” and “malicious” prosecution.
“It is the right of the parents to direct the education of their children. The defendants in this case trampled on that right,” said David Gordon, an attorney with the
Home School Legal Defense
Association, which is representing the women. “Superintendent Stewart and Glenda Leabough preferred to ignore the Pollard’s constitutionally protected civil rights. Mrs. Pollard followed state law by informing Superintendent Stewart’s office of her intention to home educate Melanie. But the school officials disregarded the law.”
The lawsuit also claims violations of the womens’ rights as stated in the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the
“The right of a parent to teach his or her child at home is protected by the Free Exercise of Religion Clause of the First Amendment” and is an “inherent parental [right] protected by the Fourteenth Amendment,” states the complaint.
Interestingly, Melanie had previously been approved for school-supervised homebound instruction in February of 1998 due to the then-sophomore’s “panic disorder.” Officials’ recognition of Melanie’s problem at that time could lend credence to the Pollard’s claim of vindictive prosecution that took place the following year, since the girl’s condition had already been acknowledged.
The Pollards are asking for $100,000 each in compensatory damages and $250,000 each in punitive damages.
Even though home schooling is clearly defined as a legal option for parents in state law, Gordon said the Pollard lawsuit “lets school officials know that they cannot keep students in their schools through threat, intimidation or coercion.
“We hope that the case will send an alarm bell to superintendents around the country that retaliation against home-schoolers who leave the public schools has grave consequences,” he added.
Officials at Goochland County public schools, including Superintendent Harold Cothern and Glenda Leabough did not return repeated calls for comment.
The Home School Legal Defense Association is a Virginia-based national home-school advocacy organization with 65,000 member families nationwide and 3,500 in Virginia.