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Connecticut commission recommends homeschooling restrictions

State Rep. Christopher Lyddy, D-Newtown, holds a teddy bear before a memorial service for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Associated Press/Photo by Jessica Hill

Connecticut commission recommends homeschooling restrictions

A Connecticut task force formed after the Newtown shooting is recommending a new policy that would allow the state to keep a close eye on homeschoolers and mandate certain instruction for parents opting students out of public school special education programs.

The state has placed increased scrutiny on its roughly 5,000 homeschoolers since the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 26 people.

Gov. Dannel Malloy created the 16-member Sandy Hook Advisory Commission in January 2013 to review and recommend new gun, school, and mental health safety standards. The team of educators, public servants, psychiatrists, and law enforcement officials finalized more than 250 pages of recommendations today. The group will officially present its findings to Malloy within the month.

“I hope that other states will look at the work that we’ve done,” said Christopher Lyddy, a commissioner and Newtown community leader. Members expressed pride and fulfillment in serving the families of the 20 children gunned down.

Lanza was classified as a special needs student whose anti-social tendencies increased while his mental health deteriorated after his mother took him out of school. Using the Lanza situation as a worst case scenario, the commission determined school districts should be given the authority to oversee the homeschool education of any special needs student taken out of their classrooms.

During his time as a student in the local public schools, Lanza could pass an academic test with support but slowly lost his ability to function socially. The commission readily admitted that public schools failed Lanza because his individual education program (IEP) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) did not adequately address his social problems. Lanza spent eighth grade “homebound,” a public, special-education program not intended to be at all independent, and continued to bounce in and out of various forms of in-school classes.

His mother’s practice of avoiding confrontation with him increased after his 2009 graduation from high school, leading to her son’s self-imposed, “anorexic” imprisonment in his blacked-out bedroom. The internet served as his main connection to the outside world. Such a situation could have been avoided, the commission concluded, if special educators had developed and enforced more comprehensive education programs for him.

Connecticut requires homeschooling parents to prove “the child is elsewhere receiving equivalent instruction in the studies taught in the public schools.” The commission decided “instruction” also means a public school’s special education wellness decisions, not simply academic standards.

“It is already the law,” said psychiatrist and commission member Harold Schwartz. “Our recommendation is essentially … that the law be enforced.”

If the state legislature adopts the commission’s recommendation, parents of children with any “identified disability” requiring an IEP could not pull their child out of public school without supervision. They would have to submit their own education plan to the local superintendent, with regular progress reports, as a condition of homeschooling.

But homeschool advocates say the recommendations create many legal obstacles, some of which could very well violate federal law, which says parents cannot assemble their own IEP teams. U.S. Supreme Court precedent also prevents states from compelling public education, said Deborah Stevenson, an attorney with National Home Education Legal Defense.

The impacts of interpreting “equivalent instruction” as not simply academics are “endless” and could potentially “destroy the concept of private education,” warned Dewitt Black of the Home School Legal Defense Association.

Public school parents may decline special services, as long as they aren’t deemed necessary for minimal functioning and neglectful to omit. Homeschooling parents, in theory, would have the same due process. But the government needs “a mechanism to find those outliers,” like Lanza, said commissioner and pediatrician David Schonfeld. Otherwise, there’s “an incentive for people to opt into homeschooling as a way of avoiding necessary treatment services,” he said.

But while the commission’s stated intent was to target only parents who pull their kids from public schools, the written language of the recommendation is more broad, encompassing all identified difficulties “sufficient to require special education and related services.”

Andrew Branch Andrew is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent.


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