Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Updated: District 13 judge demands info on all homeschoolers

[Scroll down for updates]

There's nothing like a little local homeschool controversy to bring a blogger out of hibernation.  But it is springtime, after all.  [yawn...stretch...coffee]

On Monday, April 4, I was made aware of a court order requested and signed by Chancery Court Judge Joe Dale Walker seeking to obtain the names and addresses of homeschooled children and their parents/guardians in District 13.  District 13 is comprised of Covington, Jefferson Davis, Lawrence, Simpson and Smith counties.  I live in Simpson County.  After visiting and talking with several people at the courthouse, I learned that not only did he sign this order, he also contacted the Attorney General's office which sent a letter that threatened to arrest local School Attendance Officers (SAOs) if they did not comply with the order within ten days.

[Clarification: (April 11, 2011) Initial reports were that the threat of arrest came from the AGs office.  Although the AG's office did send a letter to the SAOs acknowledging Judge Walker's court order, the AG office's purpose was to advise the SAOs that the judge could find them in contempt of court if they refused to comply with the court order.]

Understandably, the SAOs are upset.  Homeschoolers are upset.  And I'm annoyed, because I was really hoping my "Hi, I'm back!" post would be more, I dunno, about me and not some vigilante judge who wants to shake down my friends.  Anywho...

It's real.  I have a copy of the court order and a copy of the letter the SAOs sent out to homeschooling families in the area informing them of the disclosure.  Here they are for your viewing pleasure:

Court Order signed March 23, 2011

SAO letter sent out on April 1, 2011

There is no mention of a specific court case to which this information pertains, nor is there a general reason given for requesting the information.  Essentially, Judge Walker is demanding the information simply because he wants the information.  But why?

According to courthouse conversations I had on Monday (I'm not sure if I should mention names here, so I won't), the general opinion is that Judge Walker may be attempting to determine which families are legitimately homeschooling and which are using the homeschool statute to circumvent compulsory attendance laws.  The ultimate goal seems to be prosecuting the parents of juveniles who show up in his youth court and who appear not to be receiving legitimate homeschool instruction as well as to flush out other "fake homeschoolers."

I also spoke with others who are officially affiliated with the court and, to the best of my recollection, they confirmed the following:

  • Judge Walker originally contacted the school attendance officers about a month ago and requested that they release the names and addresses of all homeschool students and their parents/guardians to the Youth Court Division of the Chancery Court.  They informed him that handing over that information would be unlawful.
  • Judge Walker contacted the Mississippi Department of Education to request the information.  He was informed by the Office of Educational Accountability that it would be unlawful to provide him with this information without a court order.
  • Judge Walker signed "the Court's own motion" demanding the release of the information on March 23, 2011 (filed March 24).
  • Local SAOs made a personal appeal to Judge Walker to reconsider and rescind the order.  He said no, cited his desire to prosecute truant youths and their parents who are misusing the homeschool laws to hide their under-age drop-outs and expressed his intent to proceed.
  • Local SAOs then received a letter from the Attorney General's office informing them that they'd be arrested they could be held in contempt of court if they defied the order.
  • Local SAOs sent out a letter informing homeschooling families in District 13 of the impending release of their names, their homeschooled children's names and their addresses.
  • Local SAOs were later instructed to remove the names of homeschoolers who are enrolled in any of the six unaccredited private schools (which are legally considered home schools and are casually referred to as cottage schools.) in the area, since those students are considered "legitimately homeschooled" by Judge Walker.
If this is true, perhaps Judge Walker either doesn't know or doesn't care that interviewing, profiling, visiting or otherwise needlessly interfering with homeschool families for the sole purpose of comparing them against an arbitrary, legally non-existent and unenforceable standard with the intent of potentially charging the "failing" parents with a crime is not legal.  

Clearly, the judge is not concerned only with the youths who appear in his court.  Otherwise, why would the court order seek to secure ALL of the names and addresses of homeschoolers in District 13?  By excluding the names of homeschooled students who are believed to be enrolled in cottage schools, he is specifically targeting families who homeschool their own children in their own homes and, one supposes, presuming that they deserve his scrutiny.  

More importantly, what specifically does he intend to do with this information?  That remains to be seen.  If I were a vigilante judge who got my hands on a database of homeschoolers' names and addresses, perhaps I would cross-reference it with past criminal records, DHS cases, driving records, credit histories, tax information, etc.  And if I thought I could get away with it, maybe I'd send someone to your home to interview you and hope that you don't know your legal rights.

I'm not saying that Judge Walker would do those things. But there are many possibilities and none of them are pleasant.  And I'm not saying that there are no "fake homeschoolers" out there.  But they are a small minority for which the lawful majority should not have to sacrifice or submit to unwarranted intrusion.  Prosecute the juveniles for the crimes they've been accused of and leave homeschooling out of it.

While I was at the courthouse Monday, I registered to vote.  Judge Joe Dale Walker's term ends in 2014.

UPDATES:
April 7, 2011: As expected, the Mississippi Supreme Court has issued a stay on all proceedings until Monday, April 18, 2011.  Now, Judge Walker has to explain why he wants the information and put some law behind his justification.  Some speculate that Judge Walker may simply drop his original court order.  If he does, that would be stellar.  If he doesn't, there are pro bono attorneys who are waiting in the wings to help protect the information belonging to those of us who are not affiliated with HSLDA or any other group.

April 8, 2011: Correction: The stay is in effect until the Supreme Court issues a decision in the case, which will likely be after the 18th. The Judge has to submit an answer by the 18th, though.-- Genna McLeod

April 10, 2011: An incredibly simple, boring, one-sided article on the situation was published by the Clarion Ledger today. Way to phone one in, Jimmie Gates.

Side note: Y'all, do yourselves a favor: do not read the asinine comments at the CL (but if you do, be warned: that loud slurping sound--kinda like the one kids make when trying to suck the last drop of soda through a straw--is the sound of uninformed people trying to entice you into a fruitless debate. Just walk away.).  Enjoy this beautiful weather instead.

April 11, 2011: SAOs in Simpson County acknowledged that they received a second letter from the AG's office acknowledging the stay and instructing them (in bold capital letters) not to release any information to Judge Walker.

April 18, 2011: The deadline for Judge Walker to provide an explanation for issuing the court order is tonight at midnight.  We won't actually find out what happened or what comes next until tomorrow, April 19.  But, as soon as we do, I will update it here and post the update on Facebook.

April 19, 2011: Judge Walker did not provide an explanation to the MS Supreme Court before the midnight deadline.  According to my brilliant and helpful sources, the MS Supreme Court will likely interpret this to mean that there was no reason for Judge Walker to request this info.  It is unclear at this time whether the Court will hear from both sides before making a decision.  Either way, it appears that things will go our way.

CORRECTION: New development.  I'm not sure what I'm supposed to say or know, so I will stick to the basics: we don't actually know if the judge provided an explanation, because that information is no longer available. But, we do know that the MS Supreme Court hasn't ruled. It may not be a big deal, and we think we know what is happening, but I'd rather not speculate here.

Instead, we are preparing in case it becomes necessary to make an additional filing on behalf of "the rest of us" (because if you are not an HSLDA member, you are not specifically covered by HSLDA's filing. Fortunately, you don't have to be an HSLDA member to protect your family. Read on.). If you are a homeschooler in District 13, not a member of HSLDA and are interested in protecting your family's information from Judge Walker, contact Genna McLeod at genevieve.esq@me.com. It will cost you nothing. This is a pro bono service provided by MGM Law Group.  Thank you, Genna and Mark!

April 25, 2011: Excellent news! The MS Supreme Court has vacated Judge Walker's court order.  He will not be receiving any information regarding homeschoolers in District 13 unless they are appearing in his court as a part of a case.

The end!
---
[Necessary disclaimer: Since we haven't done this in a while, I'd like to remind you all that the views expressed here are my opinions.  I am not an attorney or a non-attorney spokesperson.  I have never played one on TV.  I did not stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.  Nothing in this post, before and after this sentence--or on this entire blog for that matter--should be misconstrued as legal advice.  Because it's not.  Because I'm not an attorney.  If you need clarification or legal advice, consult an attorney (i.e. not me).]

[Begrudging acknowledgement: I am aware that H$LDA's lawyers are on this.  It warms the cockles of my heart to include them in the first real post I've put up here in two years. /snark]

21 comments:

Momma in St. Louis said...

Hi! Just found your page when googling the dear judge this morning. Great page! I am an ex-homeschooler, having launched my kids after various combinations of homeschool (10 years), private school, and public school. Though I live in the midwest, I was raised and educated in Mississippi and hold it dear.
I am just mildly curious why the begrudging acknowledgement of HSLDA's efforts, as I would think that they are on the same team, based on a quick review of the great causes I noted on this blog. Again, just curious as HSLDA seems to have homeschoolers' freedom at heart.
Anywho, as you say, great blog! Keep it up and I'll follow!

Jeanne said...

Well good grief. And hello again. And I'm glad I'm not in Mississippi any more. Or maybe the judge should be. Although, I, also, am not an attorney. But perhaps if I were there, I could arrange for a showing-up-of-homeschoolers at his court, you know, for educational purposes? But not giving out any of our personal information? I think this judge hath not experienced well-stirred homeschoolers. Could be about time.

Jeanne said...

And I can't WAIT to hear your explanation about HSLDA to Momma in St. Louis.

Matt Brady said...

I enjoyed reading the blog entry.

I'm guessing that the dollar sign in H$LDA is meant to reveal the root of angst against HSLDA. Personally, I think the annual amount I give to HSLDA is a mighty small price for a legal retainer. Further, even if I never need their services, the fact that my money is going to help pay for lawyers to argue other homeschooling cases will ultimately benefit me. If they win in the 13th district, the judges here in North Mississippi won't be able to try and pull the same intrusive stunt.

Natalie West Winningham said...

Hi all! Welcome to my blog. It's been a long time, so it's really nice to see comments from actual people! And Jeanne, hello! :D

Matt and Momma, thanks for your kind words and input. First of all, HSLDA is a complex organization that has gone through a lot of changes in the last decade. Explaining what is happening and why it is bad is a long, long story.

Secondly, HSLDA is not prepaid legal insurance. You are not guaranteed representation by their organization in the event that your family will need them.

Thirdly, the org does not have certified attorneys working in every state, and there have been instances in which families have had to hire their own. In other words, Matt, you aren't paying HSLDA a retainer. So, what exactly are you paying for?

I will post my thoughts on their efforts later today and explain why I think they are dangerous to states like Mississippi.

In the meantime, I invite you to visit http://hsislegal.com/ to get an overview of what HSLDA has done in other states.

Matt Brady said...

Natalie,

I understand HSLDA's requirements and their limitations on cases which they will take. For $100 I'm not looking for a million dollar defense, but I think I can at least count on $100 worth of legal advice. Further, I am helping to pay for lawyers to be able to work full time defending homeschooling all over the country. I'm glad to be a part of that at the national level.

Having said all that, I'm looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on HSLDA. We have only been in this for a few years, so our history of following the organization is fairly limited.

Anonymous said...

Would like to offer legal assistance with this, Natalie. Call me or email or FB. Genna

Natalie West Winningham said...

Hi Genna, I just sent you a message on FB.

Anonymous said...

And Jim Hood (AG) is supporting this judge on legal grounds? or philosophical grounds?

Isn't Jim Hood running for re-election?

Shouldn't he be held accountable as well?

Natalie West Winningham said...

I've heard Hood was considering a run for governor or lieutenant governor, but I'm not sure.

Sure, I'd like to know why his office issued a letter threatening SAOs who are acting within the law, but I'm guessing the AG's people simply didn't have enough information (even though it's their job to make sure they have enough information, blah blah).

For now, perhaps our interests would be better served by focusing on the court order. And maybe one of us will get the opportunity to ask him about this during his campaign.

Samantha said...

As a fellow homeschooling, Mississippi mother, I am appalled! I had no idea this had happened until this evening. A google search of the judge led me here. I hope this matter is taken care of swiftly by proper authorities. I'm passing your blog on to others in our homeschool circle and hoping our homeschool communities voice their concerns over this outrage!

Anonymous said...

Jim Hood will be running for re-election as AG this year.
http://www.yallpolitics.com/index.php/yp/post/22266/

Genna said...

Actually, the stay is in effect until the Supreme Court issues a decision in the case, which will likely be after the 18th. The Judge has to submit an answer by the 18th, though. GM

Natalie West Winningham said...

I'll update to reflect this correction. Thank you for all your help, Genna!

And thanks, anon, for the info on Hood's re-election. I was going off of speculation I'd heard/read in February.

ArtemisiaFSS said...

Thanks for the information Natalie.

Marlis said...

Hi Natalie, I came upon this post at Alasandra's Blog where she posted a link to it.
What a dangerous precedent this would be. The problem is that there are often those who want to get their names in the history books of their profession. Some of them are politicians like Senator Maloney from IL, or your chap here who wants to do it for both political and career history. It could also be that someone who has a vested interest in the information that would be flushed out, is schmoozing the judge. That is if such orders were indeed carried out. States and school districts are hurting from a lack of funds, and homeschooled students don't bring in the money. In an ideal world, children would get a great education at school, so homeschooling wouldn't be all that necessary. But with the education of our children heading wholesale to the toilet in practically all 50 of these glorious united states, parents have to take the steps to make sure their children have a chance in this world. Gone are the days of our grandparents where a job lay waiting for us in the same town or maybe the one 15 miles away. Now we are competing on a global scale. And while most homeschooler are like you and I and the rest of those that responded to your post are serious about our children's education there are those who are not so much. I know one such family myself. What astonishes me about this Court Order is that is void of any reasons or statements of purpose. There is no attached brief that would customarily accompany such an order. A brief both stating intent and preceeding instances where such an order was decreed. In the absence of both this brings me back to my original thought that someone is trying to make it into history.

Anonymous said...

This is the lead story today on WND

http://www.wnd.com/index.php?fa=PAGE.view&pageId=284529

Funny, because I reported it to the Mississippi coastal newspaper-the SunHerald, and they didn't think it was newsworthy!

Natalie West Winningham said...

Hello commenting commentors!

Please see the updates and clarifications above regarding the intent of the AG's letter to the SAOs.

Rather than threatening them with arrest, the letter acknowledged the court order, advised the SAOs to comply with the court order and informed them that a judge could hold them in contempt of court if they did not comply. The intent of the letter was to inform and advise, not threaten.

After the MS Supreme Court issued a stay on the proceedings, the AG's office sent the SAOs a second letter instructing them not to send any information to Judge Walker.

Thanks for reading!
Natalie

Anonymous said...

Wow! Your blog made World Net Daily today! Congratulations!

Anonymous said...

Do "fake homeschoolers" really exist? I have met many parents who choose this option and I may disagree with them for multiple reasons but no one is hiding truants.

Who the hell would want a kid, any kid, to hang around the house all day, every day, with nothing to do?

Anonymous said...

And he's back. Per an email from HSLDA this a.m. : "But the battle is not over. On February 13, 2012, Representative Bob Evans (District 91) filed HB 464, which would accomplish even more than Judge Walker envisioned in his order last year. (Perhaps it is no mere coincidence that Representative Evans and Judge Walker share the same hometown—Monticello.) If this bill passes, youth court and chancery court judges will rule homeschooling in Mississippi. They alone will have the authority to decide whether a family may continue to homeschool, even when the family has not been accused of failing to comply with the law. Mississippi would change from one of the best states in which to homeschool to the absolute worst.

HB 464 has been referred to the House Education Committee and to the House Judiciary B Committee."