When the doorbell rings at the Channell residence in Spring Valley, Ill., 10-year-old Aaron and 11-year-old Christopher run for cover.
The homeschooled boys have been on edge, says their father Roger, since a truant officer came to the family’s front door Oct. 3 and warned, “I could have your children taken away.”
The Channells have been homeschooling their boys for five years without a hint of concern from public school officials. Like other Illinois homeschoolers, they’ve responded to any official inquiry with a brief letter stating that they comply with the law by teaching, in English, all the branches of education taught in public schools.
But now the Channells, threatened with prosecution, are among at least 24 families in a three-county area who have been contacted in the past two months by a truant officer demanding that he be allowed to speak with the children and review their educational materials.
The Channells are one of at least five families that have been referred to a state’s attorney for prosecution by Bruce Dennison, regional superintendent of Bureau, Henry and Stark counties in Northeastern Illinois.
WorldNetDaily first reported Monday that two police squad cars escorted officials who delivered a letter to the Fortune family in Geneseo, Ill. The story since then has been followed up by the Fox News Channel and many area newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune.
Meanwhile, an Illinois homeschooling family in another part of the state has been poring over 3,000 pages of documents acquired from Dennison’s office through the Freedom of Information Act. The names are blacked out, but by using addresses and other details, documents were matched up with 21 homeschooling families under investigation in Bureau, Henry and Stark counties. Documents in the families’ files include medical records, divorce papers and other personal data.
Contrary to a news report published after WND’s story, the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, or HSLDA, has not worked out a “deal” with Dennison regarding families who are members of the Virginia-based group.
HSLDA senior counsel Chris Klicka believes, however, that Dennison will not press the cases of the five families who are members of his group. The HSLDA also has made an exception to its policy, Klicka said, and will allow any of the other families under scrutiny to join. Normally, a family must be a member before it runs into problems with authorities in order to receive the group’s legal assistance.
Dennison told WND yesterday that he would not, according to policy, comment on individual cases. He maintains that there are only about five or six homeschooling families under scrutiny at the moment.
“I wish I could be more specific,” he said, “but out of respect for the families in those individual cases, we do not comment.”
‘Not in compliance’
Roger Channell received a letter from Bureau County State’s Attorney Patrick J. Herrmann on Oct. 21 stating, according to a copy obtained by WND, that Channell and his wife Barbara have been referred to him for prosecution by the Regional Office of Education. The office, Herrmann wrote, “has informed me that you have not been in compliance with the requirements of the Illinois compulsory attendance law.”
Several calls by WND were made to Herrmann’s office yesterday, but the state’s attorney did not reply.
When truant officer Merle Horwedel came to the Channell’s door at about 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 3, sons Aaron and Christopher were preparing for a spelling quiz, according to Roger Channell.
Horwedel did not respond to calls from WND, but, according to Channell, the conversation at the door went like this:
“Why are your kids not in school?” inquired Horwedel.
“They are in school,” Channell replied
“No, they’re not,” insisted the truant officer.
“They are,” maintained Channell. “They attend Pillar of Fire Christian [school].”
“Where is that?” asked Horwedel.
“Right here,” replied Channell.
Channell refused to let Horwedel enter the house, asserting that he and his wife had been legally homeschooling for five years by offering a “statement of assurance” to official inquiries. State’s Attorney Hermann’s letter says, however, that the Channells “must allow the truant officer to visit with your children and review the educational materials you are using.”
Upon Channell’s refusal, Horwedel warned that he could have the family’s children taken away.
“My boys had sneaked up behind me,” Channell said. “When they heard him say he could take away my children, they took off.”
One headed for the corner and another ran upstairs and hid under his bed with his baseball bat, he said.
“Now, when anyone rings the doorbell, they’re gone,” said Channell. “They won’t even go to the door. They’re afraid to look out the windows. It’s ridiculous to traumatize kids that way.
Carol Severson, director of home education issues for the Illinois branch of the national lobby group Eagle Forum, told WND that she visited with the Channell family and heard one of the sons tell his story.
“This boy is thoroughly scared to death; you can see it in his eyes,” she said.
Severson noted that one of the truant officer’s concerns is that the Channell boys were not being socialized.
Horwedel insisted that the boys belonged in public school, just like his grandchildren. Public school is good enough for those kids, Horwedel said to Channell, and “your kids had better be there too.”
Why Dennison singled out these families is a mystery, said Severson, a veteran homeschooling mom in the small town of Malden in Bureau County. She estimates there are at least 100 homeschooling families in the three-county area.
“There is no rhyme or reason for the families he picked,” she told WND. “Why he didn’t pick me, [I don't know], I’ve homeschooled for 22 years.”
Dennison contends that the premise for the scrutiny is to try to “determine that schooling is taking place” as parents claim.
“What we have is a refusal to share any information,” he said.
The HSLDA argues, however, that while the regional superintendent has authority to refer a truancy case to the state’s attorney if presented with evidence, he does not have the power to regulate homeschooling or to investigate whether families are complying with the law.
A 1950 Illinois Supreme Court decision, People v. Levisen, established that homeschooling falls under the requirements of a private school, Klicka said. Private schools, according to the school code, are required only to teach the same branches of instruction as public schools and to conduct instruction in the English language.
A simple statement that a family fulfills the two private school requirements has been sufficient for other homeschooling families in the state and also, in the past, for the families now under scrutiny. Why, the homeschool advocates ask, are these parents under investigation now?
“That is our current protocol,” Dennison replied to WND, which is to ensure that homeschoolers are complying with the law.
Is it a new protocol?
“I’m not saying it is new,” he said, refusing to elaborate further.
Channell said that during Horwedel’s Oct. 3 visit, he noticed the truant officer holding a legal pad filled with names, with his at the top.
Severson said that about five minutes after Horwedel left the Channell’s home, the truant officer came to the door of a homeschooling family nearby. Severson, who received an immediate call from the mother of that family, believes that Horwedel was going down a checklist that could have had as many as 80 to 100 names.
Dennison’s files on 21 of the families under scrutiny have been obtained by homeschooling leaders Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn, regional coordinators for Illinois Christian Home Educators.
In a summary of material in the files, the Bluedorns conclude: “There is no uniform standard measure of what satisfies [Dennison]. Sometimes a simple letter to him is enough. Sometimes a signed form of assurance which he provides satisfies him. Sometimes a signed form, a home visit, an examination of curriculum, an examination of children, and attendance records satisfy him. Sometimes none of these things satisfy him.”
Dennison responded that each case is examined individually.
“To say there is not one standard measure – each homeschool is unique, so we’ll look at each case based on its own merit,” he said.
The files, the Bludorns noted, contain adoption papers, divorce papers, medical information, domestic violence reports and special notes as to whether or not a parent is a minister or a member of the HSLDA.
Dennison acknowledged that in some cases documents of that kind are included in files.
“We work with a variety of social service cases,” he said. “We have some youngsters who may have had attendance problems prior to being withdrawn from public school.”
Klicka commented that there is nothing illegal about having personal documents of that kind in the files, but believes they are irrelevant to schooling.
“It just seems to be off the beaten track,” he said. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s just kind of poking around” with no standards.
Dennison, quoting a 1995 Illinois Board of Education memo, maintains that a 1974 court decision, Scoma v. Chicago Board of Education, emphasized that “the burden of proof rests with the parents to establish that the plan of home instruction which they are providing to their children meets the state requirements.”
The position paper says that “if the regional superintendent is dissatisfied with the parents’ ability and/or willingness to establish that home instruction in a specific instance satisfies the requirements of state law, the regional superintendent may request that regional or school district truant officer to investigate to see that the child is in compliance with the compulsory attendance law.”
The HSLDA’s Klicka contends, however, that the state board has misinterpreted the Scoma case. The burden of proof applies only within a court setting, he argues, insisting that Dennison’s authority is only to enforce the attendance law, not regulate it.
“If you get a neighbor, or relative, or somebody calling you who says, ‘I know this family, they don’t have books, they’re neglecting their kids, they’re babysitting all day,’ then he’s got a duty to act,” Klicka said. “But short of that, it’s just no more than bigoted profiling of a family simply because they are homeschooling.”
Burger King v. Wendy’s
Severson contends that giving the regional superintendent any authority over homeschooling is a conflict of interest.
“If you’re homeschooling, the superintendent is your competition,” she said. “It would be like Burger King telling Wendy’s you have to do certain things a certain way, or I’m not going to approve you.”
Public schools in Severson’s area miss out on receiving about $5,500 or $6,000, depending on the district, for every school-age child that does not enroll.
“You can’t have somebody [in charge] who has something to gain by saying, “Declined. You’re done,’” Severson said.
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