Michigan Home Schoolers Protected by Civil Rights Suit
Home schoolers in Michigan continue to wrestle with public school authorities who, without any legal basis, attempt to close down their home schools. Over the years, St. Joseph County has gained the reputation as one of the most aggressively hostile counties toward home schoolers. Just one year ago Laurel Pebler, a St. Joseph County resident, was arrested, fingerprinted, and photographed for mug shots merely because she was home schooling her children. By God's grace, Home School Legal Defense Association was able to convince the local court to dismiss the case based on the fact that the law as applied to home schooling was void for vagueness and, therefore, unconstitutional.
Through the Pebler case HSLDA was also able to establish two important points: first that the Peblers' home school was legally within the law without filing the Department of Education's SM 4325 Form, and second, that the home school could not be prosecuted unless the Department of Education first held an administrative hearing.
In December 1991, however, St. Joseph County school officials resumed their persecution of home schoolers. Four HSLDA families were visited by a local principal and police officer and threatened with arrest. In one instance the family was also threatened with the removal of their children from the home. These four families, as well as several others, also received intimidating letters from the Intermediate School Districts threatening criminal prosecution if they did not enroll their children within one day of receiving the notice.
HSLDA attorney Chris Klicka wrote letters to the school officials and the prosecutor in an attempt to avoid prosecution. The prosecutor insisted on proceeding with his case by filing charges against the families, but he did concede that he would not arrest the parents, nor would he remove any children from their homes.
A few weeks later the local newspaper printed an article based on an interview with the prosecutor in which he announced that approximately seven home school families would be criminally prosecuted. Attorney Klicka immediately contacted the prosecutor asking him to drop the case. The prosecutor refused to withdraw his charges.
As a result of the prosecutor's persistent and unfounded harassment of these families, HSLDA attorneys, Michael Farris and Christopher Klicka, filed a Civil Rights suit, Arnett v. Middleton, in the St. Joseph County Circuit Court in January 1992. HSLDA sued the prosecutor, superintendent, and school district for $200,000 for violating the civil rights of the home-schooling families.
HSLDA cited five “causes of action” against the prosecutor and school district, charging that they had violated the civil rights of the home schoolers by: 1) threatening to prosecute the families under an unconstitutionally vague law, 2) denying the families equal protection under the law, 3) attempting to require an illegal reporting procedure, 4) threatening to prosecute while intentionally disregarding the law requiring the families to first have a due process hearing with the Department of Education, and 5) for making an unconstitutional demand that the children had to attend public school under the penalty of law.
Within weeks, HSLDA was contacted by the school district and the prosecutor. Both wanted to settle the suit. Both promised that they would no longer pursue or prosecute home schoolers in St. Joseph county. The superintendent wrote:
Therefore, it will be the position of the ISD that the Compulsory Education Act will be enforced, but that regular attendance at school will be acceptable by parents that indicate that their children are in regular attendance at a “public” school, a “nonpublic” school, or a “home” school. The decision as to whether or not “home” schools qualify as non-public schools will ultimately have to be clarified by the legislature or the court system.
This is significant because not only has the school district agreed to leave home schoolers alone and recognize their right to exist, the district has made it written policy as well.
In a separate document, after consultation with the Department of Education, the Attorney General's Office, local judges, school officials, truant officers, and police, the prosecutor wrote:
…The opinion across the state, seems to be that the law is presently too vague and confusing…. It is my opinion, that if Judge McManus [the local judge in the Pebler case] were to follow his previous opinion that if new cases were authorized, they would be dismissed as well. Absent some further definition by the Michigan Supreme Court, or legislative action, or administrative action by the Michigan Department of Education [in holding due process hearings], I will not be criminally prosecuting legitimate home school cases in St. Joseph County.
It is my opinion, that under the current status of the law that the Compulsory Attendance Law is essentially unenforceable as applied to home school families.
Attorney Klicka is preparing a consent decree which would put this promise of the school district into the form of a court order. Once this is completed HSLDA will dismiss the suit. HSLDA is confident that the results of this suit will be effective when dealing with other hostile school districts in the state and will communicate the message that we mean business.
The response of the school district and the prosecutor to the Civil Rights suit is an answer to prayer. St. Joseph County—the primary hotbed of home school persecution—has promised in writing not to prosecute home schoolers and has publicly recognized that the Michigan law as applied to home schools is unconstitutionally void for vagueness. Praise God for working in the hearts of the authorities and protecting the home school families in St. Joseph County.