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Grandmother of slain boy pushes for home-school law reform in Kansas

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The life — and death — of 7-year-old Adrian Jones is propelling his grandmother, Emporia resident Judy Conway, to advocate for reform of home schooling.

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The life — and death — of 7-year-old Adrian Jones is propelling his grandmother, Emporia resident Judy Conway, to advocate for reform of home schooling.

On Nov. 24, 2015, Conway learned that remains of a child had been discovered at the Kansas City, Kan., home of her former son-in-law, Michael Jones.

“It was like someone had torn my heart out,” Conway said. “A big piece of me died that day.”

Conway believes home schooling was one way Jones and his wife prevented anyone from knowing what was happening to Adrian, who was kept in a shower stall, routinely beaten, starved and eventually killed.

Jones, 46, a former Topeka bail bondsman, is accused of feeding Adrian’s body to pigs. His trial is scheduled for next month.

“It’s beyond horrific,” Conway said.

She wants Kansas to adopt requirements that include background checks for those registering home schools and a flagging system for at-risk children.

“All I want is some oversight and accountability,” Conway said.

But some home-school advocates see additional regulations as unnecessary and intrusive.

The situation, while tragic, wasn’t a result of home education, said Kent Vincent, a board member of the Christian Home Educators Confederation of Kansas. It was a result of abusive parents, he said.

What the law says

Kansas doesn’t regulate home schooling.

Under state law, home schools are considered unaccredited private schools, said Dale Dennis, Kansas’ deputy education commissioner. Families are only required to report to the state the name and location of their home school and the name of the person maintaining records, Dennis said. There isn’t a cost to register. Home-schooled children are supposed to complete the same number of hours of instruction as those in public schools, but the state doesn’t enforce this.

Dennis said accreditation, state assessments and academic achievement reporting aren’t required, nor is enrollment information, such as students’ names.

Michael Jones registered his school July 17, 2012, naming it “Jones Academy.” The location of the school is his home address, where Adrian’s remains were found. It is unknown how many children he and his wife home-schooled.

There are currently 30,438 registered unaccredited private schools in Kansas, said Scott Gordon, the state education department’s top attorney. Of those, 27,812 are considered active, though the agency concedes this figure is likely inaccurate. The agency asks families to inform the state when they are no longer home-schooling, but they rarely do, Gordon said.

Call for change

Conway has contacted several state representatives to bring attention to Adrian’s story and its connection to home schooling. She is hoping for a bill, perhaps named in his honor, next legislative session.

“We just want these kids to be protected,” Conway said.

Some home-schoolers are open to the idea of regulation.

Kansas’ current laws result in “a complete lack of accountability,” said Rachel Coleman, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education.

Coleman was home-schooled by her college-educated mother, who conducted pedagogical research and kept detailed documentation of her daughter’s progress.

Others aren’t so fortunate, Coleman said, adding that recommendations would help protect children.

Among these, she suggested:

• Requiring background checks for those registering home schools, in the same way that licensed teachers undergo background checks.

• Implementing a flagging system for home-schooled children when social services have been involved to avoid a pattern in which parents who have been reported to social services remove their children from public school. Such a system would have flagged Adrian, according to his grandmother.

• Having mandatory reporters contact home-school families, ideally as part of annual academic assessments in which students take a test or have a portfolio review. Then students would meet with a qualified person who could ask what the children are learning and whether they have any concerns.

• Requiring home-schooled students to have the same medical exams as public school students. Families submit immunization records for public school, where their children also have access to hearing and dental checks.

Coleman said these proposals aren’t intrusive for responsible home-school parents. Students in public school have “eyes on them” five days a week by multiple people, many of whom are mandated to report abuse to the Department for Children and Families, she added.

Though Coleman has supported home schooling bills in several states, she has faced fierce opposition. Many of the bills have failed.

“What parents have to realize is that their children have rights too,” she said.

Coleman added those actively involved in the home-school community may not see problems with lack of regulation because abusive situations are kept hidden.

“Families like Adrian Jones’ aren’t involved in home-school communities,” she said.

Rep. Clay Aurand, R-Belleville, signaled he is open to discussing regulation.

“I would be supportive of any measures that protect children from harm,” said Aurand, who chairs the House’s education committee. “I would be interested to see any legislation that might be developed to address tragedies like the unimaginable situation Judy Conway’s grandchildren suffered.”

In order to examine home schooling, Aurand said, law enforcement, DCF, the Kansas State Board of Education, the home schooling community and others would need to come together.

Conway said she has reached out to Gov. Sam Brownback’s office twice, but hasn’t received a response.

Status quo backed

Vincent, with the Christian Home Educators Confederation of Kansas, said the current home schooling system in Kansas works well.

Parents who home-school take their responsibilities seriously, and the home schooling community encourages substance, Vincent said. It also saves the state millions of dollars.

“I can’t see creating another bureaucracy,” he said.

If someone sees something amiss, they should report it so DCF and the legal system can handle it, Vincent said.

Scott Woodruff, an attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Association, said it is a “waste” to focus society and the Legislature’s energy on home schooling. He pointed to a 2016 federal study published by the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. The report found children known to child protective services are at a higher risk for death resulting from abuse or neglect. It would be more effective to direct attention and resources at identifying at-risk children in the child protective services system and following up on their situations.

Woodruff said government agencies, such as DCF, knew about Adrian and “did not perform their job.”

“We are eager to see child abuse deaths go down, but it’s not going to be by pounding on home schooling,” Woodruff said.

He also said there is no evidence that such states as New York and Pennsylvania, which have more home-school regulations, have benefited.

Scientific data on home schooling is limited because many states don’t require academic testing or reporting.

However, Jeffrey Murphy, a researcher at Vanderbilt University, has found no evidence that home schooling harms children. He doesn’t see a need for government to be very involved.

Based on available data, Murphy said, home-schooled students do well getting into college and a little bit better getting through college compared with their public school peers. With many companies offering testing services, home-schoolers can choose to test their children.

Murphy described Adrian’s story as an “extreme outlier” and said a single, powerful case shouldn’t determine policy. The fact that he was home-schooled isn’t relevant, Murphy said. Students who attend public school still can suffer abuse.

Though many home-school parents would balk at the idea of requiring background checks, Murphy said he is undecided on the matter.

According to Murphy, 2.5 million students are home-schooled nationwide. Families that choose to home-school do so predominantly for religious reasons.

“They believe that the school and curriculum should have religious themes,” Murphy said. Other parents see schooling as their responsibility, feel disgruntled with public schools, or fear harmful socialization.