BRADENTON -- In an effort to keep homeschooled students safe from abuse, Manatee County School Board member Charlie Kennedy is proposing the board support legislation to change Florida's homeschool law.
The early draft language of the bill addresses the case of Janiya Thomas, an 11-year-old found dead in a freezer in mid-October. Janiya was pulled from Manatee Elementary School in May 2013 and enrolled in homeschool by her mother, Keishanna Thomas, in August 2013. It is still unclear exactly how and when Janiya died.
After attempts by the Manatee County School District to have Keishanna Thomas provide the state-required annual report on Janiya's grades more than a year after she was taken out of public school, Keishanna Thomas told the district in January that Janiya no longer lived in the state. Janiya was taken out of the school district without proof of another address or proof of enrollment in another school district, following procedures in the homeschool law.
A proposal being drafted by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office and state Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, would change the homeschool law to add an in-person check on homeschool children by a certified teacher on either a semester or quarterly basis, board member Charlie Kennedy said.
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"It's a very simple change," Kennedy said Tuesday during a school board workshop.
Other school board members hesitated supporting the proposal because it is so early in the draft stages, may add an additional burden on the school district staff and may not prevent another case like Janiya's.
"One thing I want to be very careful about is endorsing or placing some sort of requirement on the district that we do not have the resources or ability to manage or enforce," board Chairman Bob Gause said. "I don't think any of the system proposed would have changed the outcome in this particular case.
An emerging line of research shows when child abuse exists in a homeschool environment, it is typically deadlier than when abused children are enrolled in schools where people can notice their bruises. Yet in Florida, nothing in the law prevents someone with a history or under suspicion of child abuse from homeschooling their own children or even running a homeschool for other parents' children.
Nationwide, at least 84 homeschooled children died as a result of child abuse from 2000-2012, the Coalition for Responsible Home Education has found. Mandated school-district checks on homeschooled children are only once a year, so if a child is abused or killed, it can be hidden for months or years.
Board member Dave Miner said he saw the benefit of having more frequent contact with homeschooled children, but is worried about potential liability. Manatee County, he added, should be at the forefront of any changes.
"I think that it behooves us particularly in Manatee County where this child was lost by the system to urge our legislators to change the system to have some kind of reporting of homeschooled, or purportedly homeschooled, children I'd like to see that happen," he said.
Karen Carpenter warned against a "knee-jerk" reaction to the Janiya Thomas case, saying any changes need to be thoughtful and in the best interest of all the children.
"The failure was not really the school district. It was the failure of the mother. I think we need to be very clear that the district followed procedure," Carpenter said.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter@MeghinDelaney.