The plight of a home schooling mom

By Linda A. Prussen-Razzano
web posted September 27, 1999

After listening for just a few moments to the tired, youthful voice on the other end of the phone, it was obvious to me Karen Maple had experienced her share of tough times. It was equally obvious that she loved her children deeply, feared the authorities would take them away from her, and would do anything to keep them safe. While I do not have the entire story, I obtained snippets from news articles, court documents, and conversations held between Karen, her supporters, and myself.

Some background

Karen started her family of three just out of high school. She advised that her ex-husband is of no assistance; his name does not appear on the court documents. She is living on a limited budget, but still managed to come within only a few hundred dollars of owning her several acre homestead. She makes do with what she has, keeping her old clunker car alive through determination alone; even still, in our first conversation, Karen had fretted that her car was unreliable. This was of particular concern because she worked part-time and because her son was suffering from "stress related" rashes. Friend Cindy Wade advised, "It's amazing the thing even ran."

This is not the first time events surrounding Karen Maple's life were considered newsworthy, and the truth so difficult to discern.

According to a Bakersfield Messenger article by staff writer Jeff Ballinger, on October 25, 1995, Robert Sheridan, principal of Bakersfield of Elementary, contacted Karen Maples and asked her to come down to the school. Her eldest son, Scott, had been in an altercation with another student and the school suspended him for fighting. According to the November 3, 1995 Burlington Free Press report, "Maple went to the school...and refused to leave," during which time she and her son reportedly attacked the principal.

In the County Courier, however, Sgt. John Wilder's police report indicated that he had "made an appointment for discussion" of the son's attack on the other student, "but Karen Maple and her sons arrived first."

Now which is it? The boys were in school when Karen was called, or she came to school with them looking for a fight?

During my conversations with Karen, she voluntarily brought up the incident, but her account was quite different from those published. According to Karen, the principal told her "they couldn't do anything for her son...they couldn't teach her son." She pulled Scott and her younger boy, Trevor, out of the school. Karen alleges that when they motioned to leave, she found the doors were locked and the principal attempted to physically restrain them from exiting the building.

Ironically, evidence documented in the County Courier's account substantiates a portion of Karen's claims. "Superintendent Mary Sherrer said the school's outside doors were locked during the incident 'to be sure who was coming in.' When the mother was in the building, doors were locked 'to keep the kids safe. She was angry,' Sherrer noted."

The reason for such concern? Karen openly admitted to carrying a loaded handgun in her purse for protection; the principal and school staff knew it. This statement and the school officials' concern appeared in several articles surrounding the incident; it was included in the police report. The school officials were so concerned, they locked the doors to keep an armed, presumably dangerous woman inside with the children?

Does this make sense to anyone?

Further, the police officer originally allowed Karen and her two sons to leave the school after the incident, only to arrest Karen and her eldest son shortly thereafter for the alleged attack. Karen pled innocent to the charges and was released on her own recognizance.

Still, this altercation is not the focus on the story. It is presented to show just how unpleasant Karen's relationship was with school officials. I sensed her deep distrust of the school in our conversations, a distrust that only intensified when they threatened to take her younger son away from her.

The 2 per cent Factor

True to her word, Karen did pull her children from Bakersfield Elementary School. The older boy is now 18 and out of the system.

Her younger son, Trevor, was also removed from Bakersfield. His last official date at the school was October 30, 1995. He was enrolled in Camel's Hump Middle School till 1996, when Karen decided homeschooling would be the better choice for him. Testing revealed that Trevor was far below grade-level in many subjects. Karen was adamant that her son needed an alternative learning environment.

There was only one problem: Bakersfield special educators had already determined that Trevor was in need of special education. According to the IEP (Individualized Education Program) performed at Bakersfield on May 25, 1995, the amount of special education planned for Trevor amounted to 40 minutes a week, or 2 per cent of his average class time.

According to court documents, "the Vermont Department of Education's Home Study Consultant, Natalie Casco, approved the basic curriculum for Trevor's home-schooling, but did not approve the home study enrollment due to issues surrounding the IEP." In other words, Karen had everything in place to legally home-school her child, except she couldn't obtain approval because she wasn't qualified to handle her son's special education needs.

What were those needs? According to his IEP, Trevor needed to "read orally to a staff member" three or four times a week, he needed "articulation training" twice a week to work on his "conversation skills," and he needed a "behavior plan" to help him control his reactions when he got angry.

That's it.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that IEP involvement is voluntary. According to Dr. G. Thomas Bellamy, Ph.D, a summary of 34 C.F.R. Secs. 300.450-452 and 34 C.F.R. Secs. 76.650-76.662, reveals that "federal rules determine the right of the nonpublic school child who is handicapped and wishes to participate to have the opportunity to participate in public schools services. They do not establish or eliminate any right of a parent to refuse to allow the child to participate in special education activities when the parent's decision is that the child should not participate."

Bakersfield offered mediation services to Karen and Trevor on August 23, 1996, to address his IEP needs. Karen declined, as was her right. Trevor's name was on the enrollment lists for Bakersfield during the school year of 1997, even though Karen had been home-schooling him since 1996.

According to Karen, the whole situation came to a head when she received a call from a substitute secretary at the school's attendance desk. The secretary allegedly called Karen to find out why Trevor wasn't present at school that day. Karen advised the secretary that Trevor was being home-schooled and shouldn't be on the list at all.

According to a Country Courier report dated August 19, 1999, "Maple's refusal of...special services is why the state has refused to approve her home-schooling program. At some juncture, Trevor was diagnosed as learning disabled and given an Individual Education Plan. These plans are funded by federal money and, under state law, must remain in place until the Department of Education determines that there is no longer a need for them."

Because approval of her home-schooling curriculum became such a key issue, Karen attempted to obtain a Special Education Due Process Hearing to determine if Trevor actually qualified for an IEP. The motion was filed on May 26, 1998. She never received it.

Moreover, on April 6 and 7, 1998, Ms. Jean M. Chevalier, a qualified teacher, administered the Stanford Achievement Test Series for Grade 7 to Trevor. "The most recent test results place the 14-year-old slightly above a 9th grade level in mathematics and science. In other areas, he performed at lower grade levels but showed dramatic improvement over previous years." (Country Courier, August 19, 1999, Page 28).

The school rejected the test findings as inconclusive.

It Gets Worse

During the various legal wranglings in the court, the school continued to exert pressure on Karen. They insisted Trevor either enroll at the school or have a qualified special education teacher come to their home for supplemental lessons. Karen advised that she was given limited options: allow the school into her home or have her children removed from it.

Karen adamantly refused. According to one new report, Superintendent Sherrer advised that "when we began to put pressure on [Karen], she filed an administrative complaint with the Commissioner of Education." Karen admitted that she felt as if her life was slowly being stripped away; it was a daily struggle to maintain some semblance of normalcy in her children's lives. Every threat against her and her children only reinforced her determination to fight the system and keep her family whole in the process. According to Superintendent Sherrer, "[Karen] later threatened to bring harm to the truant officer or anyone else [the school] sent to her home." (Country Courier, August 19, 1999, Page 28).

Things came to a boil when friends and supporters of Karen posted details of her circumstance on the popular conservative web site, Free Republic. Karen had just come from a closed door meeting with the judge, her council, and representatives of the school and Social and Rehabilitative Services (SRS). The judge advised that if Karen and her son did not appear, her son would be remanded into the custody of SRS. Members of Free Republic, long known for being a politically active in pro-Constitutional fights, responded with a flood of e-mails, letters, and telephone calls to Vermont papers, the school district, and the Family Court judge supervising the case, Judge Kupersmith.

Karen made the appearance, but refused to bring her son. She was hoping to obtain alternate council, because of a disagreement with the way her existing council was handling the case. During that appearance, Karen advised that the judge lambasted her, scathingly advising "I got e-mail." Presumably, that mail came from various internet supporters.

The judge turned custodianship of Trevor over to SRS, although he was allowed to remain at Karen's house pending a later hearing. Karen called me several times, acutely upset and mortified that her attempts to obtain justice through the appropriate channels were denied. According to Karen, evidence that supported her parenting skills was ignored, but letters (sometimes anonymous) that criticized her parenting skills were entered into the record as evidence.

I could tell she was at her wit's end. She had already lost her job because of the turmoil, stood to lose her land, and was endanger of losing her freedom if she didn't comply with the court order. What was on her mind during that time? Her children. She took them to a friend's house so her two-year-old daughter could play and her son could sleep without fear of being pulled from his bed by SRS.

She also sought out continued support, and was approached by libertarians in her area to make a video, which ran several times on the local cable access station.

During her last scheduled court appearance, that dilapidated car of hers would not run. She called the court to advise that it wasn't working and that she was in the process of securing alternate council, but the court was not interested. As of this date, Karen is now in jail without bail for refusing to turn over her children. I received the bad news via e-mail before it hit the internet.

Ancillary Issues

Other homeschooling moms, fearful that this case will paint all homeschoolers in a bad light, have written editorials to the St. Albans Messenger rebuking Karen and her supporters. "Any unfortunate associations between conservative right-wing and/or white-supremacist organizations making noise on the internet and the real issues regarding fair education should be clearly delineated." (St. Albans Messenger, August 24, 1999, Opinion Section).

There you have it. Karen is considered "anti-government" and the folks who support her are "anti-government/white supremacists." An August 20, 1999 editorial in the St. Albans Messenger implied "that the homeschooling movement as a whole uses misinformation to promote the demise of not only our system of education, but also our system of government."

As part of the group that responded to calls for help for Karen Maple, I was amazed to learn that she and we were being branded as racists, supremacists, and the like. Obviously, the "reporters" at these newspapers and their readers are unaware that a large majority of Free Republic, myself included, actively supports the only African-American Republican candidate for President, Dr. Alan Keyes. They are obviously unaware that Connie Hair, Spokesperson for Free Republic, is staff member of the Keyes Campaign and also works for Larry Klayman of Judicial Watch. They are unaware that the reason so many folks at Free Republic responded to the call stemmed solely from their desire to see a return to a constitutional form of government, instead of the pervasive, socialist form of government we presently live under.

Young Trevor summed up the situation best in his letter to the Courier in July of 1999: "It's like a constant nightmare. I worry all the time of these people stealing me away from my family and home. Enough is enough. I did not commit a crime. I'm only fighting for my rights to a better education than what Bakersfield School could offer me."

Linda Prussen-Razzano is an advisory board member and frequent contributor to Rightgrrl and a columnist for the American Partisan.

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