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Cover Story
Susan Oliver: Convicted—even though this mom did everything right

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HSLDA legal contacts for May and June 2001

C O V E R   S T O R Y

"Mom, why are you torturing me? Please don't send me back to school," pleaded 12-year-old Marcus Oliver. He had had his fill of being distracted, teased, and bullied by fellow classmates and ridiculed by a special education teacher.

Marcus Oliver and his mother Susan live in a quiet neighborhood in small-town Emmaus, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Allentown. An active boy, Marcus enjoys playing on the trampline in his backyard, baseball, and Nintendo.
Marcus has severe language receptive disorder, borderline central auditory processing disorder, and dyslexia. He didn't learn to read until he was nearly 10 and had been in a self-contained emotional support class through 3rd grade. Due to his mother Susan's persistence, Marcus was mainstreamed into a regular classroom in 4th grade for the 1999-2000 school year. Despite Susan's repeated requests for one-on-one support for Marcus and consistent communication with and from his teachers, she found the boy was not receiving that assistance and she heard little from the teachers. She was shocked to find out that Marcus had inadvertently missed 27 math homework assignments. His math teacher refused to use a daily assignment book to help the boy organize his homework and enable his mother to help keep him on track.

Another of Marcus's favorite activities: playing with and walking his three very rare New Guinea Singing Dogs. "There are only 100-200 documented, and they're nearly extinct," explained Susan. "They don't bark, they sing."
Marcus began asking Susan not to send him back to school. He was moved back into the emotional support class in order to put him back under a familiar teacher for the remaining six weeks of that school year and through the next fall. Looking back, his mother now feels that decision, which she made jointly with school officials, "was a mistake." Marcus resented being placed back in the emotional support classroom. His classmates, many with emotional problems, misbehaved, distracted, and bullied him. "The emotional support setting was a detriment psychologically and academically. Instead of being at a 7th grade level, he is still nearly three years behind," Susan said.

At a meeting with Susan in early 2001, school officials denied her request to try some form of mainstreaming again. Finally, after Marcus was physically assaulted by young bullies on an inadequately supervised playground, his mother, Susan, had had enough. "I took him out on May 2 and wrote a letter to the principal saying I was going to keep him out two days."

During those two days, Susan did much soul-searching and praying over how to best help her special needs son. She had fought a long two-year battle with the school district to make sure that Marcus's special needs were being met and that he was in the least restrictive environment. She even went through due process. But Marcus was making little progress and becoming more miserable each day. As long as the school system refused to move Marcus out of the emotional support class, he would continually face bullying, a distracting environment, and dealing with children who had a lot of emotional problems.

"Marcus is doing exceptionally well being home schooled," said Susan. "It's one-on-one. His progress is amazing. I only wish I had done it sooner." She spends about five hours a day, six days a week working on academics with her son.

"He had been asking me not to send him back to school for the past year. I kept telling him, 'Stick it out. They're the teachers. They can teach you.' I didn't know what to do because nobody was helping him. I just kept praying for answers. That's when God showed me that I am intelligent enough and dedicated enough to teach him myself. Never did it come into my mind that I could really do it, until I prayed and God gave me the answer."

On May 3, Susan decided to home school Marcus. On May 5, she wrote a letter to the superintendent, Dr. Alrita Morgan, saying "I'm not sending him back and he is not going back because the school is not taking care of his special needs."

A typical day in the Olivers' home school

We wake up and Marcus watches the news—Good Morning America, or something like that—to learn some current events. Then he eats breakfast and about 9:00 we start with school. We do a lot of remedial work. For example, Marcus changes the date on a big calendar and writes down what yesterday was, what today is, and what tomorrow is, as well as the weather, the season, and so on. He hasn't retained those things. Then we go over the time. Then he takes apart a United States puzzle and names all the states as he's putting them back in. We might also practice counting money.

After about an hour of remedial work, we proceed to reading and spelling until lunchtime. Then we might do science or music and math. Usually, we get in about five hours a day, six days a week. We also enjoy frequent field trips to places like the Baltimore Aquarium and the Philadelphia Zoo.

When I'm teaching, I'm only away two nights a week. I'll leave at 5 and come home at either 9 or 11 and then Saturdays from 8:30-12, while Marcus is with a babysitter.

I'm going to get him swimming lessons and music lessons for next year. At every possible moment, Marcus is outside—on the trampoline, at the pool, at the park, or out playing ball. Often all the neighborhood kids will come here to play on the trampoline or on Nintendo. Marcus wants to be an artist, so he's always drawing.

— Susan Oliver

Susan followed all the proper steps: She sent in a notarized affidavit and she arranged for a special education teacher to send the district the required letter approving her plan for teaching a special needs child. That's all Pennsylvania law requires.

But two days later, assistant superintendent Frank Romano called Susan. He wanted two additional items: First, he asked Susan to add a paragraph to her affidavit indicating that Marcus had been identified as a child needing special education. (This paragraph is not required by state law.) Second, he said Susan needed a written notification by a Pennsylvania-certified teacher or licensed clinical or certified school psychologist that Susan's home school program addressed Marcus's special needs. (This is required by law and Susan had already made arrangements for it to be sent under separate cover.)

Since Susan lives only a few blocks from the school, she offered to type up the changed affidavit and walk it up to the official immediately.

Don't worry about it, the assistant superintendent said. "I'm going to be out this week. Just make sure you get it to me by the fifteenth or sixteenth."

Susan took him at his word, made the changes and mailed the new affidavit on May 11. The certified school psychologist mailed her letter around May 8. All of the documents were waiting on Frank Romano's desk when he returned from vacation and he sent her a letter on May 16 to let her know that her program was approved.

Susan had done everything right. It all seemed fine.

But it wasn't. On May 15, the principal Dr. Margaret Geosit filed charges. A few days later, Susan received a summons to court, informing her that she was being charged with truancy for May 8, 9, 10, 11, 14 and 15.

Susan called HSLDA. Because we believed her case affected the rights of our members in Pennsylvania, we agreed to represent her even though she had not previously joined. "School districts tend to pick on the most vulnerable home schoolers—single moms and parents teaching special needs children. Susan Oliver is both," HSLDA President J. Michael Smith explained.

Oliver case time line

May 2--A year-long pattern of verbal intimidation led to another physical assault on Marcus Oliver by fellow classmates. Susan Oliver pulled her son out of school for "one or two days" and informed the principal, Dr. Margaret Geosit, of this excused absence.

May 3--Susan decided to home school Marcus.

May 5--She submitted her notarized affidavit to the superintendent, Dr. Alrita Morgan, and arranged for a certified school psychologist to

send the required letter approving her special education home school program to the district.

May 7--Assistant Superintendent Frank Romano called Susan to tell her that she had omitted a special education paragraph (one not even required by state law) from her affidavit. Although he was going on vacation, as long as he received her amended affidavit by May 15 or 16, he assured her, everything would be fine.

May 8--Certified school psychologist mailed "written approval of [Susan's] program by individual qualified in special education." (Although the compulsory attendance statute says this letter is to be "submitted with the notarized affidavit" Susan submitted May 5, she had already made arrangements for the letter to be sent and was in substantial compliance with the law.)

May 11--Susan mailed amended affidavit.

May 15--Assistant Superintendent Romano returned from vacation.

May 15--Principal Geosit filed truancy charges against Susan.

May 16--Assistant Superintendent Romano mailed letter of approval to Susan, indicating her documentation was complete.

May 16--Susan called Home School Legal Defense Association after she received a truancy prosecution notice in the mail.

June 13--Court found her guilty of violating compulsory school attendance law from the day she withdrew her child (May 5) until her amended affidavit was received by the district (May 12). Court fined Susan $80, plus court costs.

July 6--HSLDA filed Susan Oliver's appeal.

At the trial on June 13, Judge Donna R. Butler found Susan Oliver guilty of violating the compulsory school attendance law from the day she withdrew Marcus (May 5) until her amended affidavit was received by the school (May 12). The court fined her $80 and court costs for this alleged violation.

"It seemed like the magistrate had made her mind up before we did anything," said Susan. "I felt that I was being penalized for the school district's failure to have someone cover Frank Romano's job while he was on vacation. And it seems like the principal was acting vindictively because I had so persistently addressed the school's failure to meet Marcus's special needs."

HSLDA filed an appeal on Susan's behalf with the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas on July 6.

What difference has home schooling made?

"Marcus is doing exceptionally well being home schooled," said Susan. "Because of his receptive language disorder, any kind of noise or disturbance disrupts his thought processes. It's quiet here. He doesn't have other children disrupting him. It's one-on-one. His progress is amazing. I only wish I had done it sooner."

"I never thought that in the state of Pennsylvania I would be allowed to teach a special education child," she said thoughtfully. "However, the special needs education advocate I was assigned last year started recommending home schooling back in January. And since I became a Christian three years ago, I had already begun to think of what my child was learning in school and what I want him exposed to."

Susan has definite plans about what is best for her son: "Marcus is not going back to school. We had kept Marcus back to help him catch up, but he's still testing at only the 3rd grade. The school district failed my son, so I've taken on the responsibility to bring him up to where he should be."

How do you home school as a single mom?

"Although I'm educated," said Susan, who has an associates degree in information systems and a bachelor of arts in psychology, "I did not think that I had the knowledge or skills to teach. But when I saw that the public school teachers weren't doing that well with my son anyway, I thought, 'I can do better than this. I'm more dedicated. My one and only concern is Marcus. I have to succeed, because I have no one else to blame.'"

As an adjunct computer networking instructor, Susan works part-time at night and on weekends at a local community college, and teaches Marcus at home during the day.

"God has blessed us financially," she said. "I don't have the money I was making as a computer engineer, but then I worked 60, 70 hours a week. Now, we can afford to live comfortably and I'm able to do this, so I'm grabbing right onto it. It's like God can't put it more in my face.

"I found that the more I made the more I spent. If you cut down on your spending, you can really live off of hardly anything. You can do it, you just have to make sacrifices."

Susan and her husband adopted Marcus when he was five days old, but she's been a single mom for the past 10 years.

"Basically, I gave up my career for Marcus," Susan said honestly. "That was very hard. I've been working since I was 15, but he's more important than anything else. Preparing him for life, and to be an honorable and decent man is what's important to me."