Across the States
Grueling Hour in Court Debunks Truancy Charges
Who in their right mind would homeschool?" exclaimed the El Paso judge. His question was aimed at Ray and Sharon Rivera, who wondered nervously what was going to happen next.
The Riveras' homeschool journey began in 2001 upon a recommendation from the principal of the local public school, who told them, "I cannot guarantee your child's safety at this school." The Riveras' 10-year-old daughter had been involved in exposing certain violent incidents and crimes in the school, and was identified as a "whistle blower." When she was beaten up by bullies, the family determined to take the principal's advice.
Upon withdrawing their daughter from public school, the Riveras joined Home School Legal Defense Association and, pursuant to HSLDA's advice, sent a letter to the school district explaining that they were homeschooling according to the requirements of the Leeper case and were establishing a private school in their home.
Despite these measures, a truant officer came to the Rivera house and told the family that they needed to place their child in school, ignoring the family's explanation that they were homeschooling. The following day, the At-Risk Coordinator for the school district visited the Riveras and demanded that they put their daughter in school immediately. On the third consecutive day, a police officer arrived and served the family with a summons to appear in court in two days.
The Riveras contacted HSLDA for assistance. Without enough time to fly to El Paso or even find a local attorney to represent the family, HSLDA Senior Counsel Christopher Klicka scrambled to put together a defense for their court appearance the next day. Working late into the evening, he faxed a letter and memorandum to the court explaining Texas homeschool law.
Klicka's letter asked the judge to dismiss the case because the family was legally homeschooling according to the Texas Supreme Court's decision in Leeper v. Arlington (1994). Klicka explained that the family was not required to notify the district of their homeschool (although the family had sent notification in 2001). He further pointed out that the burden of proving the family was not educating their child was on the school district, not the family. Nor was there a requirement that the Riveras' curriculum be approved by the district.
The Riveras arrived at court on the morning of January 26, 2006, and watched as the judge levied heavy penalties, even sending mothers to jail, in the truancy cases preceding theirs. Despite their anxiety, Ray and Sharon Rivera remained confident in their right to homeschool and their conviction that their daughter was worth fighting for.
When the Rivera case was called, the judge asked those in the courtroom, "Does anyone know the law on homeschooling?"
The truant officer and At-Risk Coordinator both shook their heads no.
Mrs. Rivera then asked the judge to read Klicka's letter and memo. As the judge began scanning the documents, he said, "I need to read this out loud to everyone." After doing so, he said to the school officials, "I think I will dismiss this case. What do you think?"
The officials immediately began to list their objections to dismissing the case. The At-Risk Coordinator alleged that the family had never notified the district that they were homeschooling.
Mrs. Rivera, however, acting on Klicka's advice, was armed with a copy of her 2001 notification letter, proving that the Riveras were homeschooling at the time of their child's withdrawal from the public school. Mrs. Rivera also presented as evidence the returned postal receipt to show that the notification had been delivered.
"But I never saw that form," protested the At-Risk Coordinator. "Besides, it explains that they are doing a private school."
Mrs. Rivera explained that under the ruling in Leeper, homeschools have the same status as private schools. She reminded the judge that this was explained in Klicka's memo, and the judge nodded in agreement.
"This situation is highly suspicious," responded the At-Risk Coordinator. She said that she and the truant officer had come to the Rivera house on different days, had looked through the kitchen window, and hadn't seen the child homeschooling. (What they didn't realize was that the girl routinely studied upstairs, not in the kitchen.)
At this point, the judge asked, "Who in their right mind would homeschool their children?"
As Mrs. Rivera recounted how the local principal had recommended they homeschool because of violence in the school, the judge was visibly moved, but he continued to grill the family.
"Isn't this child isolated?" he persisted.
Mrs. Rivera described the broad range of social activities in which her daughter was involved.
The judge then questioned Mrs. Rivera on her teaching methodology. When Mrs. Rivera handed the judge some schoolbooks and samples of her daughter's work, which Klicka had advised her to bring to the courtroom, the judge asked, "How can you give grades to your child?"
Mrs. Rivera replied that she used teacher's manuals to supplement her own knowledge in teaching her daughter, and she further explained how well homeschooling worked for their daughter. Finally, she informed the judge that a relative had admitted to reporting the family for truancy.
At this point, the judge dismissed the case. He warned the truant officer, "I don't want you ever again to serve a summons, charge somebody with truancy, and make them come into the court the next day!"
After their tense hour in court, the Riveras were elated that God had delivered them and thankful for the defense HSLDA had provided-through the team effort of a virtual lawyer and a mother and father who loved their child and wouldn't give up their rights.
— by Christopher J. Klicka