Walking down the street at noon on a sunny, mid-January day, two teen-age boys on their way to a mini-mart for a soda, were stopped by a truancy officer. Charlie Coppenger, a truancy officer for Pittsburg County, Oklahoma, questioned the boys about what they were doing and why they were not in school. The two explained that they were home schooled, but Mr. Coppenger did not consider that a valid excuse.
Later the same day, Mr. Coppenger gave an interview to the local newspaper, and on Sunday, January 14, 1996, the front page of the News-Capital & Democrat carried the headline, "New program aims to reduce truancy." Extolling the county's crack-down on truancy, the article described the typical truancy cases, based on the interview with Charlie Coppenger: "… young children whose parents give in to pleas of illness, while others are teenagers who flat out refuse to go to school…. He [Coppenger] said home schooling is an excuse he often hears, but according to law, home schooling is only valid with a court order." The article continues, this time with a direct quote:
"Just today I came in contact with two boys I saw walking in town and they said they were home schooled," Coppenger said Friday. "But that's not justifiable. Parents have to go through the court for permission to home school their children."
Early Monday morning, Steve McGarvey, legal assistant to Home School Legal Defense Association attorney Scott Somerville, answered a call from Mrs. Sandra Disney. Her son was one of the boys stopped by Mr. Coppenger the previous Friday. She was concerned about the truancy contact, as well as Mr. Coppenger's statement to the newspaper that parents must get permission from the court to home school. Steve asked her to fax him a copy of the article and alerted Attorney Somerville to the situation.
Mr. Somerville called the News-Capital & Democrat and spoke to Kandra Wells, the reporter who wrote the Sunday article. Mr. Somerville explained to Ms. Wells that the quote was in error. The Constitution of Oklahoma clearly guarantees parents the right to home educate their children (Section 6, Article 13). Any attempt to force home schoolers to seek judicial permission to home school would violate their constitutional and civil rights as Oklahoma citizens.
After checking with the Pittsburg County Sheriff's Department, to confirm Mr. Somerville's statements, the News-Capital & Democrat printed a retraction on Thursday, January 18. The headline ran, "Order not needed for home schooling" and the article assured readers that,
Truancy officers are not targeting the estimated 125 children in the region who are educated in their homes according to Pittsburg County Sheriff Bennie Durant.
The sheriff has also discounted a statement made by a deputy truancy officer that parents may only teach their children at home when they have a court order.
Home schooling parents hugged their children and breathed a sigh of relief. Another confrontation had been avoided and our constitutional rights were affirmed.
But the story wasn't quite over. The following Sunday, January 21, 1996, the newspaper headline proclaimed, "Truancy official quits after dispute over law." According to the article, Mr. Coppenger reacted to the sheriff's statements by resigning as County Truancy Officer, saying he no longer has any credibility. Coppenger claims that immediately after the article was published, he realized his mistake and went to Sheriff Durant for permission to contact Ms. Wells and correct his statement. Durant denied Coppenger's request. Apparently the Sheriff hoped that the erroneous statement would go unnoticed, not anticipating the reaction of Pittsburg County's concerned home schooling population.