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A lawsuit filed last week alleges that the Worcester School Committee and the city's superintendent, as well as the state Department of Children and Families, violated the constitutional rights of a woman and a son she was home schooling.
The lawsuit alleges that police knocked on Josilyn Goodall's door on March 30, saying her son had missed so much school that they were there to confirm the 8-year-old boy — called "A.S." in the suit — was "living and breathing."
But the situation escalated quickly, the complaint says, with police threatening to force open the door after Goodall refused to admit them. When she relented, the lawsuit says an officer "handcuffed Josilyn ... [ordered] her in a loud, raised voice to sit down ... and took her to the police station" with no charges filed.
Goodall contends this was an extraordinary escalation in response to her decision to home-school her son. She says she had submitted what she believed to be the requisite paperwork to Worcester's superintendent in January, including an education plan and a promise to share requested progress reports with the district.
State law recognizes that students who are being "instructed in a manner approved in advance by the superintendent or the school committee" should not be subject to the state's compulsory-attendance statute.
The complaint alleges that Worcester's superintendent never replied with approval of her plan.
Goodall's attorney, Robert Caprera, writes that Massachusetts legal precedent in Care and Protection of Charles (1987) establishes that in that situation, "the burden of proof ... shifts to the school committee to show that the instruction outlined in the home school proposal fails to equal 'in thoroughness and efficiency, and in the progress made therein, that in the public schools in the same town.'"
Instead, the complaint alleges, Worcester Public Schools (WPS) reached out to the Department of Children and Families (DCF), alleging that Goodall's son was truant and possibly being neglected — leading to the traumatic scene at her home.
A national group called the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) has taken up Goodall's case, presenting it as emblematic of problems with Worcester as a district and Massachusetts as a state.
The self-styled "Christian organization," a national nonprofit that provides legal assistance to home-schooling families, shared a video of Goodall and her story on its Facebook page.
The HSLDA has labeled Massachusetts one of five states with the nation's strictest regulations of home schooling. It is one of just two states to require superintendent approval before home schooling can begin.
Mike Donnelly, an HSLDA attorney, says this problem isn't limited to Worcester.
"In Massachusetts, what has been happening over the last 12 to 18 months is that school districts have been referring home-schooling families to the Department of Children and Families for investigations of what they call 'educational neglect' — over, essentially, paperwork disputes," Donnelly said.
DCF declined to respond to the allegations. WPS officials declined to comment, but to say that they weren't aware of instances in which the district directed DCF to home-schooling families that had submitted the appropriate paperwork.
Paige Tobin, an attorney working for the district, said the July 2018 change in policy wasn't a crackdown on home-schooled students, but something much more procedural. The school committee "voted to clarify their existing policy and practice regarding approval for new applicants for home schooling ... that students must attend their assigned school until approval was received."
According to reporting in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, other families have raised similar concerns to the school committee this summer.
Bill Heuer runs the Massachusetts Home Learning Association (MHLA), a voluntary organization that dates back to the Charles decision and is separate from the HSLDA.
He said that home-schooling policies vary from district to district, but that some districts do have problems with "that gray area ... between when schools take a look at the education plan and reply, to approve or disapprove."
Heuer declined to comment on Goodall's case in particular, but he noted that Worcester expects it may take two or three months to come to a decision on students, which he doesn't consider "timely." He said the involvement of authorities, when application papers are in superintendents' hands, is regrettable.
"Why raise issues with DCF, and get them involved, when they probably don't have to be?" Heuer asked. "It seems to be something outside the spirit of the law."
Goodall is seeking unspecified compensatory damages for what she calls "an unconstitutional policy that interfered with [her] fundamental right" under the Fourteenth Amendment, and for the "mental pain and suffering" inflicted upon her and her son.
She also asks the district court to make a declaration that Worcester's policies on home schooling are "illegal and unconstitutional," and that students should not be reported to DCF while districts have their home-schooling paperwork.
State data show that almost 7,500 Massachusetts students were home-schooled in the 2016-'17 school year, including 153 in Worcester.
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