Is HEAC Ignoring Rules?

The Home Education Advisory Council (HEAC) met on September 14, 2017 after a summer hiatus although the meeting was not disclosed in advance on the NH Department of Education’s website.

Because only five of 11 voting members were present, one member formally resigned and another effectively vacant, the council determined they did not have sufficient members present to constitute a quorum. It is not clear if Ms. Ellie Riel was in attendance as a guest or as a substitute for Ms. Heather Gage of the NH Department of Education as she was fully engaged in the discussion, apparently included in council emails, and the Chairman even gave Ms. Riel an opportunity to give a report “on behalf of the department” (see video 3 at 4:15). If Ms. Riel was a substitute, HEAC had six seats present to make a quorum. Nonetheless, the Chairman gave a “chairman’s report” (see video segment 1 at 4:39) and the council discussed matters for roughly one hour. At the end, they determined that they would not publish minutes, again because they said a quorum was not satisfied.

Per most parliamentary procedures including  Robert’s Rules of Order Revised, 4th Edition, a quorum is a simple majority of voting members unless otherwise specified in bylaws. This was discussed at HEAC’s January 2017 meeting, so they are aware of how a quorum is determined. It is also considered “best practices” to exclude vacant seats to determine a quorum; refer to Mason’s Manual section 501.1. It is unknown whether or not previous meetings in fact met the conditions of a quorum with appropriate parliamentary procedural use. Member Cara Barlow was tasked in the January 2017 minutes to develop operating procedures that would address quorum determination.

(On a side note, Sen. Ruth Ward was in attendance and although she is listed as a HEAC member in the January, March, and May 2017 minutes, she is not listed as a member on the state DOE website. Sen. Kevin Avard is the named representative from the Senate.)

We were present and video recorded the September 14th meeting. It is in four segments on our YouTube channel.
2017 September HEAC meeting part 1
2017 September HEAC meeting part 2
2017 September HEAC meeting part 3
2017 September HEAC meeting part 4

The center of discussion was the annual report prepared by Chairman Amy Gall (NH Homeschooling Coalition) and Vice Chairman George D’Orazio (Catholics United for Home Education), both long-time members of HEAC. Refer to the second video starting at 5:37. Council member Janet Ellis indicated that a draft version of the annual report was emailed to members and required a review prior to submission to the state Board of Education. The draft annual report was significantly altered before being presented at the state BOE meeting on August 24, 2017. This is in violation of RSA 91-A which requires public boards, including councils, to conduct all business in public unless it involves legal counsel or personnel matters which this does not.

Apparently, at the March 2017 meeting the council reached consensus that annual reports would be reviewed prior to submission to the state Board of Education. Per those minutes, some council members were unsatisfied with the 2016 Annual Report and said recommendations to the state BOE did not reflect the council’s opinions as a whole.

We obtained a copy of the draft version of the 2017 Annual Report from a council member through a RSA 91-A (Right to Know) request and here is the final presented to the state BOE. There are significant differences; a major portion that references a problem between a homeschooling family and their local district regarding their notification was removed and the section about DCYF’s engagement with the homeschool community is concerning.

In the original report, Ms. Gall briefly discusses a situation from fall 2016 between a homeschooling family that moved into a district, but did not file with the local SAU. It is referred to as a “report of neglect” to DCYF. We counseled the mom during that encounter and am familiar with the situation. The family originally filed their Letter of Intent with a private school that offered Participating Agency services, but is no longer operating. The SAU insisted that the family refile their Letter of Intent with the district although the law specifically says a family must file one-time per child and is silent with regards to a Participating Agency that closes. The mother told us that they were “harassed” by the district and truant officer. Although they provided a copy of their acknowledgement letter from the Participating Agency, the district and truant officer determined it was insufficient and demanded a new Letter of Intent be filed or face truancy charges. The family received letters from the district that the mom described as “threatening” so she refiled with another private school Participating Agency to end the harassment. That eventually satisfied the SAU. The concern is that HEAC was seemingly unaware of the unfair molestation the district inflicted upon the family as it is not reflected in the report.

Also note that once again the Division of Children, Youth and Families cases of educational neglect feature prominently in the Annual Report. Based on the most recent report, DCYF compiled data to show that there were 34 cases in 2016, 52 cases in 2015, and 30 cases in 2014. In closer examination of the 2016 cases, 23 were adjudicated. Of those 34 cases, only 16 were solely for educational neglect. DCYF does not track if any involve home educated children, so it is impossible to determine if any of them are relevant to HEAC and the homeschool community.

The report also says HEAC had single home education neglect “contacts” in each year from 2013 to 2015 with an increase to six in 2016 and two so far in 2017. As we revealed in our October 2016 article, these “contacts” were largely not homeschooling issues.

“Going through the last three years of meeting minutes, it appears that there were concerns that one public-school family was suspected of child abuse who then filed to homeschool their child (June 2015). They shortly returned to the public school per the September 2015 minutes. There is one other vague reference in the January 2013 minutes pertaining to concerns with one family. Other than to indicate the family consulted with the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), there is no mention how it was resolved. There was also a brief note in the October 2015 minutes that a district superintendent suspected that a student was withdrawn from public school to babysit a younger sibling. Per the minutes the family was reported to DCYF and they responded that they do not investigate families for educational neglect. While child abuse is abhorrent and not to be taken lightly, how are these homeschooling issues, particularly the spring 2015 case involving a child who was and is again enrolled in the local public school? “

In the January 2012 HEAC minutes, Lorraine Bartlett of DCYF spoke to the council about the process they use to investigate neglect cases.

“Ms. Bartlett explained the process by which DCYF investigates complaints of abuse or neglect. Of the approximately 24,000 calls DCYF receives each year, only about 8,000 calls warrant department action. Ms. Bartlett stressed that the primary mandate for DCYF is child safety and that DCYF does not get involved if a complaint is simply about the education of a child. Any claim DCYF staff receives must be sufficiently documented before the department will begin an investigation. The department does not investigate undocumented complaints, but considers them opportunities to provide information and referral. The number of cases dealing with homeschoolers is extremely small. For example, Ms. Bartlett could recall only one case in the last six months that involved a homeschooling family, but the charges did not pertain to homeschooling. Although a record of truancy would be included in the information DCYF reviews, it is the responsibility of resident school districts to deal with lack of documentation for homeschooling programs. Ms. Bartlett said that DCYF would contact the resident school district if complaints of educational neglect were made purely because of homeschooling.”

Given this presentation, it is surprising that HEAC is continuing to pursue DCYF connections to a negligible number of potential home educational neglect cases. However, by including this misinformation in another HEAC Annual Report, it continues to imply that there are significant home educational neglect problems in New Hampshire.

Readers may recall that the 2016 HEAC report also heavily emphasized concerns of home educational neglect with DCYF. The council repeatedly requested DCYF to attend meetings and provide data to shed more light on these concerns. Ms. Gall, as Chairman and author of the report, requested that DCYF have a seat on the council which would give them voting privileges. We reported on it in our article, Threat to Homeschoolers.

It is entirely possible, especially given the repeated references at HEAC meetings (refer to meeting minutes from January 2013, February 2013,  a vague possible note in September 2013, and January 2014) that some of these educational neglect instances involve teens that do not wish to attend school and are uncooperative with parents and school officials. At the 2013 meetings, then council members commented that these were “unintended consequences of the extension of the compulsory attendance law.” As Ms. Riel of the DOE and Helen Rist of the NH School Administrators Association said at the September 14th meeting (see video segment 3 starting at 4:28), they often hear of families that struggle with teens over 16 who no longer want to attend school and parents turn to homeschooling, not because they may genuinely want to home educate their children, but to avoid truancy charges. The NH compulsory school attendance is through age 18 so by law, these teens must be enrolled in some educational setting. While public schools have many intervention services, they may not be successful for all students.

Another possible “educational neglect” scenario is mentioned in several older HEAC minutes. Former DOE representative, Roberta Tenney mentioned concerns about students being “pushed out” of schools to homeschool because the public schools found it more convenient for various reasons. (See December 2011October 2012, May 2014, October 2014, April 2015, and May 2015.)

It is clear from the examples supplied in the report that DCYF is poorly informed regarding NH’s home education law and requirements. We agree that DCYF is an inappropriate agency to investigate home educational neglect cases and either should not be responsible for those investigations or must be better trained in home education law. That said, DCYF has reported to HEAC on two occasions – January 2012 and October 2015 — that they do not investigate cases of home educational neglect.

Council members remarked (in video 1 at 6:26 and in video 2 at 13:00) that they must be cautious with the annual report as it is the primary communication piece to the state Board of Education as they may interpret it as a request for intervention. A handful of reports may give a disproportionate sense of scale. This is an appropriate concern especially given the comments made by former Commissioner, Dr. Virginia Barry, at last year’s state BOE meeting when the annual report was presented.

 “…the [HEAC] report addendum recommendations/observations reflect a paradigm shift from previous home school parents wanting a “hands off” approach from the department to one involving more involvement/collaboration.”

The 2017 Annual Report also uses four inquires to infer there are widespread misunderstandings regarding home ed graduation. According to the report some parents want their graduates to receive an official transcript and diploma. Ms. Ellis is concerned that it could initiate requirements for a competency-based examination for graduation. Because some families may want a type of credit diploma, HEAC may pursue a path to obtain one through testing and the Department of Ed. Watch video 1 starting at 8:20 and continue into the second video for the discussion.

HEAC will next meet on Thursday, October 12th at 3:30pm at the DOE’s office at 101 Pleasant Street in Concord. They use different conference rooms, so check with the front desk to find out where they are meeting.

As part of our dedication to school choice and the homeschool community, we will continue to monitor the Home Education Advisory Council and periodically provide updates when there are significant issues and actions.