Homeschool parents tell Manatee County School Board no legal fix necessary

BRADENTON -- Advocates from the homeschool community made it clear Tuesday they do not support any potential changes in the way the state of Florida handles homeschool in the aftermath of the case of 11-year-old Janiya Thomas.

Wearing blue and seated together during the Manatee County School Board meeting, seven speakers from at least three counties told board members changing homeschool laws is not appropriate.

"The actions of Janiya's mother do not represent homeschoolers across the state of Florida," said Alisa Summers, who drove down from Hillsborough County to speak.

Most speakers said they appreciate the support local districts provide those who choose to homeschool students and they want to work with the district.

"We are a vibrant community and we want to work with you. We really, really do," said Lely Kuty, who has been homeschooling the last four years. "Let's work together before any legislation gets done."

The speakers were responding to the last meeting when Manatee County School Board member Charlie Kennedy said he was working with the Manatee County School Board and state Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, on drafting changes to homeschool law.

The change would add an additional check on children being homeschooled in Florida in an attempt to prevent a situation like Janiya's from happening again. 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 uncertain 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 officials 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.

Kennedy later clarified the revised provision would only apply to those who had previous cases with the Department of Children and Families.

Most board members say more information would be necessary before they could voice any type of support.

Kennedy said he brought the issue forward to start the conversation and thanked those who came to share their thoughts with the board.

"We think the laws in Florida are probably the best in the nation because they are very balanced, they have built-in accountability, direction and many opportunities for the children," said Debbie Dykes, coordinator of the Support Homeschool Activities Reaching Everyone support group, an organization serving area families since 1991. "We want it to be the best opportunity for the children."

Sandy Black, who drove to the meeting from Venice, said the blame for this case belongs only with the person who committed the crime.

"I feel like legislating and drafting a new law won't accomplish what your intended purpose is," she said. "There's no one that could have prevented this crime. The blame is solely on the person that committed the crime."

Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter@MeghinDelaney.

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