Local support group: Homeschool laws don't need to change after Janiya Thomas death

BRADENTON -- A local homeschool support groups objects to potential changes in the homeschool law proposed by local law enforcement and being discussed by the Manatee County School Board.

"The tragic death of Janiya Thomas is not a homeschool issue," said Debbie Dykes, coordinator of the SHARE Homeschool Support Group, an organization that has served area families since 1991.

On Tuesday, Manatee County School Board member Charlie Kennedy brought up a bill being drafted by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office and Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, in response to the Janiya Thomas case. Janiya, an 11-year-old, was found dead in a freezer in mid-October.

Janiya had been pulled from Manatee Elementary School in May 2013. Her mother Keishanna Thomas enrolled her in homeschool 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.

The potential legislation, Kennedy said, would add another safeguard by requiring a certified teacher to conduct an in-person check on homeschooled students once a semester.

Kennedy was looking for other board members to sign on to the cause, but they were hesitant to approve the measure still in its infancy. Board members also worried about taking on the additional responsibility.

Board members questioned whether the bill was the appropriate way to address the situation and to keep it from happening again.

"We really need to sort out the facts and be rational and figure out what the best way is to protect children," board member Karen Carpenter said.

The SHARE Homeschool Support Group, which supports about 730 families in Manatee and Sarasota counties, says the fault lies not within the homeschool law but within the Department of Children and Family Services' handling of the case.

"The autopsy of Janiya has yet to be reported. Once the results are in, this should still not be a homeschool issue, but rather the DCF's mishandling of the case and the actions of the mother," Dykes wrote in a statement on behalf of the group.

Dykes said Florida's homeschooling laws are some of the best in the nation. Instead of changing the laws, she said, there should be "an internal directive for situations when a suspected child abuser chooses to register as a homeschooler."

The district could choose to use a provision in the home school statute that requires a parent to produce the student's portfolio with 15 days' notice, Dykes said. The schools can do that, at their discretion, every 15 days. If the district has an inkling the child may be abused, officials could make that a local policy, without changing the homeschool law.

"All they have to do is use the current statute on the books," she said.

Dykes called the Janiya Thomas case a tragedy and said changes in the homeschool law probably would have not have saved her, and only may have meant officials found out about her death earlier as long as she had been left in the care of Keishanna Thomas.

"The end result, sadly, would have been the same," Dykes said.

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.

Janiya's case was not the first time an area child in homeschool was killed or severely abused.

In 1995, 7-year-old Lucas Ciambrone, a homeschooled student from Rubonia, died of a head injury after being starved and forced to sleep in a bathroom without towels, toilet paper or light bulbs. In 1997, in Myakka City, two homeschooled girls, ages 13 and 15, were forced to sleep in make-shift cages with a brick-and-string alarm system and their parents whipped them with leather straps, sticks and rubber hoses.

By Wednesday afternoon, Kennedy said he had started to hear from homeschool advocates about the potential bill. Getting those opinions is part of why he brought the conversation to the school board and the community early on in the process.

"We are still very much in the early phase of this," Kennedy said.

Steube did not return a request Wednesday for comment on the potential bill.

Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter@MeghinDelaney.

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