Education

Janiya Thomas' case does not prompt Sarasota legislator to consider changes to homeschool laws

Janiya Thomas 
 PHOTO PROVIDED
Janiya Thomas PHOTO PROVIDED

BRADENTON -- Any potential change to Florida's homeschool law after the death of 11-year-old Janiya Thomas may take years.

The Manatee County Sheriff's office, working with Manatee County School Board member Charlie Kennedy, had forwarded a draft of bill language to Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, to try to force an additional check on Florida students who are being homeschooled.

The news of the potential change quickly drew ire from those in the homeschool community, who said that homeschooling was not the central issue in Janiya's death and that the law did not need to be changed. Homeschool families didn't need any more oversight, they argued.

"It shouldn't go anywhere, because home school is a great opportunity and a right and responsibility," said Debbie Dykes, coordinator of the Support Homeschool Activities Reaching Everyone support group, an organization serving area families

since 1991.

Last week, Steube said he will not be filing the draft language as a formal bill.

That leaves those in favor of such regulations, like board member Kennedy, with few avenues. Based on the virulent opposition, Kennedy said the original proposal may not be the best idea anymore.

"After hearing from all sides, I think it would be costly and it would be intrusive on all homeschool families," he said.

But Kennedy said he thinks there may be some ideas that all sides can get behind -- like more checks on families who have a history with the Department of Children and Families.

"I think that's something everybody can get behind," he said.

Janiya Thomas' case

Janiya last attended a public school, Manatee Elementary, in May 2013. That fall she was enrolled in homeschool.

In October 2015, more than two years after she was last seen in a school, her body was discovered in a freezer. She had been missing for nearly a year, but no one reported it. Janiya's mother Keishanna Thomas was indicted on first degree murder in her dauther's death. One of Thomas's other children told investigators her mother tied Janiya's hands and feet and dunked her in water in the bathroom.

Before Janiya went missing, school district officials were among the first to get red flags about Janiya's disappearance.

Homeschool children are required to provide annual assessments on progress to the state, which Thomas, never provided. More than a year after Janiya was removed from public school, the district tried to force Thomas to provide the state-required annual report on Janiya's grades. Thomas finally told the district in January 2015 -- nearly 1 1/2 years after Janiya was enrolled in the homeschool program -- that Janiya no longer lived in the state.

Janiya was then removed from the school district's rolls without proof of another address or proof of enrollment in another school district, following current procedures in the homeschool law.

The potential update to the homeschool law would have changed the annual check to a semesterly check by having a certified teacher conduct an in-person check on homeschooled children at least once a semester, as well as checking in on the student's academic progress.

If the child's whereabouts could not be verified in 30 days, the teacher would be required to call the Central Abuse Hotline.

The draft also would have removed the parent's right to choose the certified teacher to conduct the checks.

Homeschool advocates differ on whether proposed changes would have helped keep Janiya alive.

"If Janiya's mother has been prevented from homeschooling her, Janiya would most likely be alive today," said Kathryn Brightbill, a legislative policy analyst with the organization and a former Manatee County homeschool student.

Others disagree.

"It would have been the same horrible outcome," Dykes said.

Proposed changes draw ire

After a board workshop in November, where Kennedy announced the proposal and asked other school board members to sign on, members of the homeschool community told the board Janiya's case was not the norm, and that the issue didn't originate from homeschool procedures.

"The death of Janiya Thomas was not/is not a homeschool issue, but a failure of CPS to follow through on the dozen reports of suspected child abuse," Dykes said.

Kennedy's fellow board members also questioned whether the proposal would solve the problem, and wanted to tread lightly.

The board has requested district staff provide a workshop on the issue of homeschooling in general.

Dykes maintains homeschooling the child did not factor in at all to Janiya's death.

"I'm really angry DCF didn't do their job and pull these children out of the home," Dykes said. "These children should never have been in the home."

In defending the current homeschool laws, Dykes said Keishanna Thomas could have pulled Janiya out of regular school and said she was enrolling her in another school in another state and still could have abused the child.

"She could have just as easily said I'm withdrawing her and sending her to Connecticut," Dykes said, echoing a statement Keishanna Thomas ultimately told the school district about sending Janiya to live with family out of state.

Other options

Kennedy is not the only one to suggest changes to the homeschool laws in Florida.

The Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a national organization that lobbies for homeschool education, has been lobbying for a set of proposed changes specific to Florida -- mostly changes that would prevent people like Keishanna Thomas from even being able to homeschool their children.

"We've been working on these and developing them for a long time," Brightbill said.

The organization's main recommendation is that if a parent has any type of criminal record that would prevent them from becoming a certified teacher -- child abuse, abuse of the elderly, sex offenses, murder -- they should not be allowed to homeschool children. Currently nothing prevents such parents from starting a homeschool.

Proposals also include not allowing a parent to homeschool if they've had a child removed from their care in the past for neglect or abuse.

A final proposed safeguard would include more check-ins for families who have had substantiated investigations done by the Department of Children and Families in the past, even though those check-ins may not have resulted in a child being removed from the parent's care.

"I do want to make it clear that merely having a past DCF investigation would not trigger increased monitoring, it would have to be a substantiated investigation," she said.

Brightbill said the organization did not have a draft bill filed with a legislator, but said the organization hopes their proposed changes would be discussed in a committee meeting this session.

"I know the wheels of government move slowly," she said.

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

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