Legal 911 - What To Do
We all have fears about events that are rare and unlikely.
Many homeschooling families have a low-level, yet real sense of fear that one day we might receive a “knock at the door” from a truant officer, or a child protective services agency, or someone else who is an authority.
Though extremely rare, because it’s possible, it’s a good idea to think through what we would do and even put those steps in the form of a plan, in case we are ever contacted by an authority.
What are some possible reasons for a knock at the door? Nosey neighbors and overly zealous school superintendents can create a challenge for homeschooling families. Anonymous tip lines are all too easily utilized by concerned citizens who might see your child playing in the yard during the day. (We used to call it recess.) Whether it’s warranted or not, receipt of that kind of phone call by your local social services agency sets in motion a legally mandated inquiry in the form of a personal visit.
Chances are it never will. But what if you are this year’s unfortunate case? Or what if you get a letter in the mail from the school superintendent asking for documents or proofs he or she is clearly not authorized to see? What would you do?
Prevention is better than dealing with problems, and also easier.
Here are a few steps you can take to keep inquiries away.
1. Know and follow your state’s laws. Knowledge is powerful. Our State Legal Workbooks can help you see, understand, and do what your state asks of homeschooling families. Think of compliance with the law as a step-by-step path. Take the steps on that path that you need to take.
2. Know your neighbors. Some of us have neighbors that are 10 feet away –or less. Some of us have many acres between us and our neighbors. No matter how close or how far, be a good example of homeschooling. Look at your family, and your daily activities, with the eyes of someone who doesn’t know about or understand homeschooling. One way to do that is to keep your kids under control. Especially if your family’s comings and goings are visible to neighbors, try not to have your children out too much, or for too long, during the day. Also, practice consideration. Keep outdoor noise to a minimum not only because it’s common sense, but because it’s a neighborly thing to do. Perhaps one of your neighbors works a night shift, and needs to sleep during the day. Annoying the neighbors can lead to having an annoying neighbor. More positively, bringing a plate of cookies to your neighbors once in a while can melt the heart of the crustiest curmudgeon.
3. Practice good public relations. Think of your family as the face and the example of homeschooling that your neighbors see. Try explaining to your neighbors what you’re doing in your homeschool. Most people, even those who live next door to us, do not have a picture of homeschooling. They probably don’t know what your kids are doing in math, or what they’re reading. Try to share some of the fun of your kids’ learning with them. One way to do this is to invite neighbors over once in a while, for dessert. While they’re visiting, ask your children to show off a science project or two. Speak to your neighbors with enthusiasm and respect and you could make a friend and gain an ally.
4. Avoid disciplining children in public. Opinions vary widely on what is appropriate. However you choose to discipline your children, do it privately.
5. Don’t leave kids home alone or in the car alone. If you want to know an appropriate age when it’s OK to leave them alone, call your social services agency and ask their opinion. You will want to follow their recommendations to the letter, especially if you are leaving older children at home with younger children.
If, despite your good efforts, you receive a letter, phone call or visit from an authority, here are some healthy and defensive strategies:
1. Never give information over the phone. Your goal is to GET information. Ask what prompted the call.
2. Get complete information about the caller, including their name, telephone number, and the agency they represent. Tell them either you will get back to them, or your attorney will get back to them.
3. If the authority wishes to arrange a meeting, give yourself time to decide on a strategy and/or consult an attorney. It is unreasonable for the authority to demand an immediate answer from you. You don’t need to give an immediate answer. It is also suggested that if you agree to meet, arrange for such a meeting to be at the visitor’s office, and not in your home.
4. Keep calm. This initial call can set a tone that can lead to the end of the inquiry, a short-lived inquiry, or something more. Be calm, polite and respectful.
RECEIPT OF A LETTER
1. Read it carefully to make sure you know what they are asking for. If it seems clear and you have no objection to the request (like sending a copy of a birth certificate if the law clearly specifies that it is required) sometimes it’s best to just comply.
2. If the request is questionable, study the issue and consult counsel.
3. If you need more time to respond, write or call the sender of the letter and explain the time you need to respond. As above, be calm, polite and respectful.
If you send any communication in writing, keep copies and send it return receipt requested, which means you will receive proof that the letter you sent was be signed for and therefore received.
1. Ask the visitor the reason for the visit. They may try to bluff you by telling you they don’t have to tell you the reason. Or, they may tell you that they need to come inside your home to talk to you, but this is not true. They are required to tell you the specific allegations that led to their visit.
2. Be polite, but insist on seeing a business card or an ID badge. Would you ever let a stranger in your home?
3. If the visitor wants to enter the house, ask if they have a search warrant. If they have none, they have no legal authority to enter your home. The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. If they wish to enter your home with a warrant, they will have had to demonstrate to a judge that they have probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed. It requires far more than an anonymous tip or someone’s suspicion. Rule of thumb: No warrant - No entry.
4. When you speak ask questions. Don’t volunteer information.
5. If you have a local attorney, try to get them on the phone while the visitors are still at your door. If you can get your attorney, and if you can go outside with your phone, hand the phone over to the visitors and have your attorney do the talking.
6. If the visitor wishes to see your child(ren) to make a visual check, bring the children outside or to the door. Again, unless the visitor has a search warrant, the visitor is not entitled to enter your home.
7. Instead of answering questions, tell the visitor that you will speak with them after you have consulted with your attorney. Unless there is an emergency alleged, you are within your rights to defer a conversation or meeting. If a meeting is warranted, tell them you will meet at their office with your attorney.
8. If the visitor threatens to go to get a warrant, politely tell them you will fully cooperate if they return and show you the warrant. Chances are they will be unable to obtain one and are merely trying to frighten you. Stand your ground. Insist that they follow the law.
9. In any future meeting, bring your lawyer and a tape recorder. Turn it on and ask permission - on the tape - to tape the meeting. This is the best way to avoid misunderstandings and to guard against faulty memories.
10. If your lawyer gives you advice, follow it! This seems like common sense, but sometimes an attorney’s advice does go unheeded. There is a reason for the specifics within the advice. Don’t second guess someone you have hired to protect your rights. If you do disagree with the advice of your attorney, seek counsel with another attorney or legal services provider. Every homeschooler hopes they will never be challenged or questioned. The chances are slim that you ever will be. In the unlikely event, you will now be able to react from a position of strength (knowing your rights) rather than a position of fear and intimidation.
This is not intended to be legal advice and is offered only as an educational service for visitors to www.Home-School-Inc.com and www.HomeSchoolLegal.com. It is not a substitute for competent legal advice. Requirements may change at any time, and interpretations of the law and regulations can differ. Consult a legal services provider and a local homeschooling support group for more specific information.