Home Education Magazine - May-June 1999 - Articles
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Colorado Case Inspires National Support
The Internet is proving an effective tool for supporting the rights of homeschoolers. Its potential was recently discovered when a homeschooling mother suddenly found those rights challenged in domestic relations court. When it became known via the internet that the magistrate overseeing the court case had officially questioned the adequacy of not only 'homeschool socialization', but also the mother's ability to effectively continue to teach her daughter, the case gained immediate national attention.
The dispute erupted when Shelly Arkebauer - who had been homeschooling her daughter, Christa, for nine years - disagreed with her ex-husband over medical bills. The only indication of any possible homeschooling challenges appeared in a pre-court paperwork exchange which included a statement that the father thought public school was adequate. Minutes prior to walking into the courtroom, the attorneys met with the with magistrate for the first time and home education became the focus of the case.
Alarmed by the sudden shift, Shelly contacted the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), an advocacy organization that supports homeschooling, among other causes. As a member for seven years, she expected a different response from the one she received.
"[HSLDA] told me that they'd pray for [me], send an information packet to [my] lawyer, and answer questions," she said, adding that the HSLDA said it does not accept domestic court cases. Despite Shelly's repeated phone calls to the organization for help as the court's homeschooling challenges continued to mount, their stance on this being "a domestic case only" remained the same. "Why have I been paying all this money all this time?" she wondered.
Shelly said when she requested that an HSLDA lawyer represent her, she was initially told that the organization did not have a lawyer licensed to practice in Colorado; that they were not familiar with the state's homeschool law; and that members are required to hire local legal counsel, as the organization acts in an advisory capacity.
At a second court appearance in December, Magistrate Leonard verbally ordered Shelly to enroll thirteen-year-old Christa in public school as soon as possible. Despite the student's high standardized test scores, the magistrate's ruling was partially based on the fact that Shelly did not have a college education. It was Leonard's opinion that homeschooled children lack social opportunities, and that public schooling was in the best interest of the child. The magistrate was reported to have stated that there is nothing in the homeschool statute to prevent her from ordering a child to attend public school.
Shelly, who said she knows she is in compliance with the state homeschooling law, was stunned. "I've done everything I'm supposed to," she said, "and these attacks just keep coming."
Shortly thereafter, HSLDA informed her that they would consider the case. After reviewing the court transcript, the organization agreed to help her. HSLDA does not usually represent families involved in domestic disputes; however, attorney Scott Woodruff said Magistrate Leonard's treatment of homeschooling was so outrageous that he requested an exception for Shelly.
When she sought help from Christian Home Educators of Colorado (CHEC), her state homeschool association, she thought they would alert their members of the magistrate's decision via newsletter and/or website. As of March 19, nThe association's paper or internet publications included information about the case. "[CHEC] wouldn't do anything... I couldn't believe it," Shelly said. CHEC has not responded to multiple requests for comments regarding their behavior in the case. [Editor's note: see update in sidebar]
It wasn't until February 26, 1999 that Woodruff, in a letter from HSLDA, offered the possibility of using a routine legal procedure called pro hac vice in Shelly's situation. This is a routine procedure in which an attorney licensed in one state is authorized to represent a client in another state.
In her odyssey to obtain as much help as possible, Arkebauer also contacted Vicki Brady, host of "Homeschooling USA," a national radio program, and the Family Advocacy Center, a state organization that represents families in social services issues. With the center's assistance, Shelly created The Shelly Arkebauer Defense Fund.
Vicki Brady advised Cindy Stanley, publisher of the Rocky Mountain Education Connection (RMEC) newsletter and website, of Shelly's case. When Cindy publicized the dispute in her statewide homeschooling newsletter and on her website, word spread to a nationwide network of homeschoolers and their supporters, which included Internet bulletin boards and email discussion groups. Cindy said the publicity set off a "firestorm of outrage." Homeschoolers across the country promptly sent letters and contributions to the fund. Within the first 48 hours, Cindy had received 305 emails, and other email lists received similar response. "I was amazed at the quick response," Shelly recalled. "Supporters sent emails scrolling page after page. [RMEC] had never seen anything like it."
Shelly said that Scott Woodruff sent a letter to her attorney, dated January 20th, informing him that "HSLDA will pay a maximum of $85 per hour, up to a maximum of $2,500.00... for services rendered pertaining to homeschooling issues only, starting from January 17, 1999." ($85 per hour is substantially less than Shelly's attorney's usual hourly rate.) However, Shelly asserted that the HSLDA had initially agreed to pay legal expenses for the homeschooling portion of the case starting on December 15, the date of the magistrate's ruling.
"Then [HSLDA] changed the date to January 17," she said. "By that time I had incurred legal expenses over $5,000." Both Shelly and her lawyer understood this letter to mean that HSLDA would pay a maximum of $2,500 in legal fees. But, after the hue and cry from outraged homeschoolers, the organization reconsidered its position. Shelly credits this sudden change to "the thousands of emails, calls, and letters HSLDA received from homeschoolers and other supporters."
In late February, a few days before Shelly was to answer the contempt citation for not enrolling her daughter in public school, a District Court judge dropped the contempt motion and ordered Magistrate Leonard to re-hear the case. The judge stated that she was allowed to homeschool her daughter at least until the next hearing, which is pending. At that time, Shelly and her attorney must provide compelling evidence to prove that she has been providing the required number of "instructional contact hours" per day. In addition, the judge has asked that someone interpret and explain the legislative intent behind Colorado's homeschooling statute, which does not clearly outline whether parents have to teach certain subjects at cetain ages.
In one respect, Shelly's case is not uncommon. According to well-known homeschool author Dr. Raymond Moore, since every state now has a reasonable homeschooling law, the majority of today's homeschooling battles involve custody issues. Dr. Moore further asserts that "laymen can solve most cases on the phone without legal help, as we know from long experience."
Dr. Moore reported that the Ad Hoc National Coalition of Home Educators agreed that the defense of homeschooling issues is now best handled by unified local or state agencies, rather than an organization that claims to represent homeschoolers on a national level. Treon Goossen, Director of Concerned Parents of Colorado and co-author of the state's home education statute, supported the coalition's position. Goosen stated that it was her "heart's desire to see every state with it's own legal defense system."
When questioned about the efficacy of state groups providing legal assistance, Cindy Stanley replied: "The outrage over [Shelly's] case and HSLDA's apparent indifference to her plight really made it apparent that we needed something more. Something different. Something better."
Plans are afoot in Colorado for a statewide defense organization and network which will offer services to attorneys and families, including seminars, information packets, and a directory of lawyers specializing in homeschooling issues. Many people believe this is the kind of grassroots, bottom-up activism that will most effectively protect the rights of homeschoolers. [Editor's note: see sidebar for more information.]
Shelly Arkebauer applauded homeschoolers for their overwhelming response and would like to send a message of appreciation for the heartwarming actions on her behalf. "That's been the best thing about this case," she said. "Thank God for our homeschooling networking community. It has been the crux of the support." Indeed, the level of support and speed of response to Shelly's case represents the potential for national unity in the homeschooling community.
©1999, Shay Seaborne
Updates: Rocky Mountain Education Connection
For Online Networking: The American Homeschool Association has created an email list, titled AHA-Watchdogs, which will work to provide information, resources, and networking for concerned individuals who perceive a need for local control, defense, and activism relating to challenges to homeschooling freedoms. The listmembers welcome participation by anyone interested in grassroots activism on behalf of homeschooling families. You can join this list by going to the following web page: http://www.onelist.com/subscribe.cgi/AHA-Watchdogs
From the first welcome letter: "...This list is building on a long-standing notion that homeschoolers can and should handle the legal problems (and most other kinds of problems) that arise... Our goal with this list is to support and assist homeschoolers as they build networks within their own cities, states or regions. Our hope is that by creating this forum for communication we can spread the word about what's working well, provide a source for answers and advice when things don't go well, and help build a network of independent groups and individuals who can count on each other for support and guidance when families are threatened."
If You Want to Help
According to a March 18 update at the RMEC website, CHEC finally offered Arkebauer some assistance in covering her personal expenses related to the case. Arkebauer's homeschooling legal expenses - those not covered by HSLDA and not yet met by the Defense Fund - totaled $3417.75 on March 18. To donate by credit card, call 1-800-447-3081, ext. 7794, or make checks and money orders payable to "The Family Advocacy Center" and mail to: FAC - SWP, Attn: Shelly Arkebauer Fund, PO Box 75863, Colorado Springs, CO 80970. Please specify donations are for The Shelly Arkebauer Defense Fund.
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