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Connecticut Targets Homeschoolers

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Connecticut Targets Homeschoolers

In the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, a state panel tries to restrict parental rights. October 5, 2014
Photo by Bournagain

In Connecticut, Governor Dannel P. Malloy’s Sandy Hook Advisory Commission has returned a curious and controversial draft recommendation: the state should increase its oversight of homeschooled children with emotional or behavioral challenges. The proposal has outraged the state’s homeschoolers, who, like homeschoolers everywhere, are keenly aware of their sometimes conditional freedoms. In Connecticut, as elsewhere, the law allows parents to homeschool if they choose. But the practice has always been viewed as threatening by left-wing academics, social architects, and teachers’ unions—all well represented on Malloy’s 16-member panel. Sadly, this is only the most recent assault on the rights of Connecticut homeschoolers.

Established to investigate the causes and consequences of the 2012 massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, the Sandy Hook commission issued an interim report last year that nodded appropriately to gun safety, school security, and emergency planning, but made no mention of homeschooling. Now the panel has determined that among the things that went wrong in the run-up to that tragedy was that the killer, Adam Lanza, was homeschooled briefly as a teenager. They are recommending that the state give local officials approval power over parents who wish to homeschool children with social, behavioral, and emotional challenges. “Given the individuals involved in the tragedy that formed the basis of this commission, we believe that it is very germane,” said commissioner Harold I. Schwartz, psychiatrist-in-chief at Hartford Hospital’s Institute of Living. “The facts leading up to this incident support the notion [that there is a] risk in not addressing the social and emotional learning needs of [homeschooled] children.” Schwartz admitted that the commission didn’t have access to Lanza’s school files and medical records. But he maintained that those records would support the commission’s proposals.

But while Lanza’s abnormal social and emotional development surely contributed to his crime, homeschooling neither exacerbated his mental illness nor obscured it from local education officials. Lanza attended traditional public schools up to the eighth grade. From the beginning, everyone knew he was different. As Andrew Solomon detailed earlier this year in The New Yorker, Lanza suffered from sensory issues and received speech and occupational therapy beginning in kindergarten. At every juncture of his early life, he was analyzed and agitated over by psychologists, counselors, behaviorists, and other state-credentialed educators. Yet Lanza’s troubles deepened, and his anti-social behavior grew worse. Peter and Nancy Lanza were as desperate to help their son find psychological peace as they were to identify a school environment in which he could thrive. At 13, he was sent to a private psychologist, who diagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome. At 14, he underwent a psychiatric assessment at the Yale University Child Study Center, where obsessive-compulsive disorder was added to his growing list of personality disorders. The Lanzas considered moving 50 miles away, to a town with a school district known for excellence in special education. They briefly enrolled him in a Catholic school.

In the end, according to Solomon, it was Lanza’s psychologist who recommended homeschooling. His parents accepted the idea as a last resort for a child whom local medical and education professionals couldn’t seem to help. So yes, Adam Lanza’s mother homeschooled him during his high school years. But Nancy Lanza wasn’t trying to prove some political point by homeschooling her son. She was trying to help him, to give him a future, to keep him alive, and to keep his peers safe. The Newtown Public School system was involved every step of the way. “Even after beginning homeschooling, Adam continued to attend Newtown High’s Tech Club meetings,” Solomon writes. Adam’s home curriculum was coordinated with Newtown High so that when he graduated, he received a diploma rather than a G.E.D. Adam Lanza’s homeschooling was a reaction to his illness, not the cause of it.

So why the strong focus on homeschooling in the latest Sandy Hook commission report? It’s not clear, but the commission knew they were making a controversial recommendation. Commissioner Patricia Keavney-Maruca, a Malloy-appointed member of the state board of education, acknowledged that forcing homeschoolers to bring their children in to local school officials for mental and emotional evaluations represented a significant departure from current practice. Some homeschoolers, she said, may “get their back up” about it. Keavney-Maruca is a former member of the executive council of the American Federation of Teachers–Connecticut. Commissioner Ron Chivinski, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Newtown Middle School, is also a former high-ranking official of AFT–Connecticut.

Inherent in the draft recommendations is the commission’s belief that government and state institutions have—and should have—the ability to shape social outcomes. “We need a holistic approach that will follow children from birth to adulthood, identifying risk factors, reinforcing protective factors, and promoting positive development throughout,” said University of Connecticut law professor Susan R. Schmeiser, who helped draft the recommendation. Schools, she said, should serve as “a locus of this more integrated system of care” and should adopt “a comprehensive, integrated approach” that is not reactive, but proactive. A reformed school mental health system should do more than just scan the horizon for disorder, she said. It should “prioritize social and emotional learning within the curriculum.”

Couched in Schmeiser’s jargon, the committee’s recommendations may seem unobjectionable, but they’re really an opportunistic bid for in loco parentis—schools as substitute families and teachers as substitute parents. Such a broad mandate to foster mental and emotional wellness may be necessary inside the complex social ecosystem of a public school, where parents voluntarily send their children. But empowering a local school district to reach inside families and execute programs of social and emotional learning—perhaps against the will of parents—is unambiguously a violation of the right to homeschool as expressed by Connecticut’s education laws. More than that, though, it’s a call for a radical restructuring of the traditional relationship between children, their families, and the state.

The commissioners, like most social engineers, insist they are only motivated by a desire to protect vulnerable kids. “The purpose of this recommendation is to make sure that kids get what kids need. If they have needs that aren’t being addressed, just because the parent has chosen to remove them from the school setting . . . their needs are still going to be met,” said commissioner Kathleen Flaherty. Homeschooling, from this point of view, is an obstacle to the necessary provision of essential public-health services. It is a screen through which well-intentioned state bureaucrats can’t see, making it harder for them to build what Schmeiser—who in 2004 published an academic paper examining “the Anglo-American legal treatment of sadomasochistic sexual practices”—calls “communities of care.”

The Sandy Hook Advisory Commission’s draft recommendations are littered with examples of Orwellian newspeak like that. These “communities of care” are in fact cradle-to-graduation bureaucratic mechanisms for bypassing parental authority and arrogating to the state trusteeship over a child’s moral, emotional, physical, and cognitive development. Schools, said Schmeiser, should form “multidisciplinary risk assessment teams” to identify and address toxic stress, trauma, and social isolation in homeschooled children. Imagine for a moment the enormity of what they are proposing. What counts as toxic stress? Could a family’s decision to adhere to the tenets of a religious faith that others think intolerant and emotionally harmful be deemed trauma? Stranger things have happened. Many parents homeschool out of a strong belief that in certain school environments, and at certain ages, social isolation is actually a good thing. Would that put them crossways with their local multidisciplinary risk-assessment team? It seems likely.

Nuances aside, the issues raised by the commission’s draft recommendations are fundamentally about agency: Who’s in charge of a child, and who decides how, where, and what that child learns? Is the first and final decision about a child’s development made by the family or by the state, as represented by the local school district’s trained professionals? Of course, no one wants another Newtown. It’s understandable that Connecticut residents would demand answers. But lost in the commission’s analysis is a disruptive fact: the Newtown school system did not have to scan the horizon for Lanza. He was well-known to them and his parents all but begged for help. It didn’t come, in part because it couldn’t. There are limits to what the state can do. There are limits to what even the most well-intentioned public servants can achieve. Lanza’s act was monstrous. Only in the liberal imagination could a multidisciplinary risk-assessment team have prevented it.

Governor Malloy’s handpicked commissioners have indulged a dangerous impulse, common on the left, to reorder society at the expense of the family. In the process, they have trampled on the rights of homeschoolers to raise their children as they see fit.

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