A homeschool mom in Missouri has faced threats from a uniformed police officer that she would be “charged with criminal neglect” if she refused to sign a declaration of enrollment for the 2022-23 school year.
The only problem: the declaration was optional and not legally required.
“Using a sworn law enforcement officer to attempt to intimidate a citizen into doing something that is not required is entirely unacceptable,” attorney Scott Woodruff wrote on her behalf in a letter to the school principal, who had accompanied the officer to the family’s home.
The principal issued an apology, and the mom has received no further threats. But as homeschooling continues to grow nationwide, homeschool advocates warn that incidents like these may occur whenever school officials aren’t fully aware of their state’s education laws.
‘A stark signal’
The number of U.S. homeschool families gained momentum after the COVID-19 pandemic, with an estimated 3 million children being homeschooled for the 2022-23 school year.
Alongside that increase, public school districts have seen a massive enrollment decline, losing nearly 1.3 million students. This has spurred media notables such as Michael Bloomberg to demand comprehensive change to the current system.
“The new enrollment data sends a stark signal. Schools will have to adjust to dropping enrollments either by getting smaller or by getting better,” Bloomberg wrote in an op-ed. “You can’t lose the students and keep the teachers.”
In the face of that decline, school districts sometimes take aggressive measures against parents who withdraw their children even after completing all legal requirements.
Because homeschool laws vary by state, confusion can arise when families new to homeschooling or those moving residences begin their child’s school withdrawal process. Officials may take advantage of that confusion by demanding parents sign additional paperwork or take extra measures that aren’t required by law.
‘I will go research it’
When the Missouri mom confronted by the police officer began her homeschool journey in 2021, the school told her she needed to sign a declaration of homeschool enrollment, which she did. At that time, she did not know the form was optional.
When the school told her she needed to sign another declaration of enrollment for the 2022-23 school year, the mom did some online research and discovered the declaration was optional for Missouri. She then refused to sign it.
On Sept. 6, the mom saw the school principal and a uniformed police officer walking up to her house. According to Woodruff, the principal then tried to give a form to her, saying she needed to sign it.
When the mom saw the paper, she stood by her refusal, saying, “I don’t believe I have to sign that. If I sign that, the school will use it to get more money.”
Both the principal and the police officer claimed not to know the form was optional.
“I will go research it,” the officer said. “If I find out that you are wrong, you will be charged with criminal neglect.”
The mom then called HSLDA, which immediately contacted the principal.
“If you were innocently unaware that signing a declaration of enrollment is optional,” attorney Woodruff wrote in his faxed letter to the principal, “please convey an apology promptly.”
After Woodruff’s intervention, the principal left an apology on the mom’s voicemail by 8 a.m. the following morning.
Homeschooling in Missouri
Before Missouri enacted its homeschool statute in 1986, early legislative drafts included a mandatory declaration of enrollment or “signed written notice declaring the intent of the parent causing his child to attend a homeschool.”
The bill instructed that this declaration “shall be filed with the superintendent of the local public school district.”
However, the wording changed later from “shall” to “may” in a bill signed into law by the governor and saying, in part:
“For the purpose of minimizing unnecessary investigations due to reports of truancy, each parent … may provide … a signed, written declaration of enrollment …”
By changing “shall” to “may,” the statute made clear that the declaration of enrollment was optional, not required.
“Effectively Missouri went from being a fairly high-regulation state to a no-notice state with the change of a word,” HSLDA attorney Amy Buchmeyer concluded in a video describing the early history of homeschooling in the Kansas City area.
Missouri is not the only state where parents have faced challenges regarding their freedom to homeschool.
HSLDA recently defended several homeschool families from New York who received threatening letters from their former school district, saying they had to fill out more paperwork even after they had moved out of state. One letter went so far as to threaten reporting the family “to assure child welfare” unless parents disclosed their new address.
In West Virginia, HSLDA sent the state board of education a cease-and-desist letter after discovering that county boards were unlawfully collecting information on homeschooled students “for the purpose of ‘tracking’ assessment completion for home educated students.”
Although this practice had never been authorized, state officials are constantly seeking information that the law does not entitle them to, HSLDA attorney Michael Donnelly explained in a recent article.
“The state’s ongoing violation of homeschoolers’ privacy – despite repeated assurances to the contrary – demonstrates why West Virginia homeschooling families must be free from unwarranted intrusion,” Donnelly wrote. “Education authorities at both the state and county level have proven that they cannot be trusted to ‘oversee’ homeschooling.”