Recent child abuse allegations involving an Oklahoma teenager allegedly imprisoned at home is prompting a debate among home-schooling advocates on what role, if any, the state should play in ensuring the safety of such students.
The boy, 15, was taken from his family’s farm outside of Meeker on July 12 after a passerby called the state Department of Human Services.
Investigators said the boy was severely malnourished, weighing about 80 pounds, and had head wounds, broken bones and injuries to a leg consistent with being shot by a shotgun. He had been home-schooled for about two years, said Lincoln County First Assistant District Attorney Adam Panter.
Four of the boy’s family members were arrested, accused of failing to provide adequate care, including food, shelter, hygiene and medical attention.
The boy’s father, Jimmy Lee Jones Sr., 34, was charged with child neglect and child abuse by injury. The boy’s stepmother, Amy Adkins Jones, 46, was charged with child neglect and enabling child abuse by injury.
Stepbrothers Jonathon Luke Plank, 20, and Tyler Joe Adkins, 24, were charged with child neglect.
All four made their first court appearances Monday. They are expected back in court next month.
Officials with the State Department of Education said the department does not regulate home schooling. Under Oklahoma law, parents are not required to seek approval from state or local officials or conduct state testing, and school officials are not permitted to visit or inspect homes.
It's "a little absurd" to call into question the state's guidelines for home-schooling children, said Dana Wilson, secretary of the board of trustees for the Oklahoma Christian Home Educators Consociation. The organization promotes home schooling in Oklahoma with the vision of advancing "Christ-centered home education."
“My first response when I read the story … was this family took this boy out of school, but they didn’t take him out for the purposes of home education,” Wilson said.
It would be unfair to subject the thousands of home-schooling families in the state to “burdensome, obtrusive regulations” because a few people broke the law, Wilson said.
“People who are determined to break the law and hurt children find ways to do that,” Wilson said. "There’s no need for change."
While she agrees that abusive parents will find ways to attempt to hide abuse, with some choosing to home-school to escape outside intervention, Bethany Patterson said the state’s laws are unclear at best.
The state's only requirement for home schooling is 180 days of education per year, said Patterson, a research volunteer for the Coalition for Responsible Home Education. The organization advocates for home-schooling reform and responsible home-schooling practices.
With such a limited requirement, Wilson said there's no way for parents to prove they've completed the 180 days of education or for authorities to prove they haven't.
The State Department of Education lists a number of recommendations for parents, including notifying local school officials of plans to home-school, providing a “well-defined curriculum” on a variety of commonly taught subjects and tracking academic progress.
Patterson, who was home-schooled in elementary school and throughout high school, said she wished home schooling was more like online charter schools, where there’s a daily schedule, daily follow-up, standardized testing and a third party to monitor the child’s education.
“But none of this is required. All of this is voluntary,” Patterson said. “These parents didn’t seem like they were really home schooling. But you can’t make that case based on the way the law is written, because it’s so nebulous.”
Patterson said her home-schooling education served her well into adulthood. She also said she knew of many others who struggled going to college or trying to land a job after receiving a less than adequate education at home.
Annual academic testing by a third party and an annual checkup performed by a doctor or a physician are primary changes to state law that Patterson said she would like to see enforced.
“Doctors and physicians are mandatory reporters of abuse and, in this case, they would have seen gunshot holes, they would have seen the hole in his head, they would have seen that he’s massively undernourished,” she said. “Something would have happened, and this kid wouldn’t have been a week from death with no one seeing him and no one seeing his condition.”
Other instances of abuse
Patterson said the boy’s case isn’t the first in the state where a home-schooled child has suffered abuse at the hands of parents or guardians.
A website created by the Coalition for Responsible Home Education highlights more than a dozen cases of abuse in the state to refute comments that home-schooling abuse rarely happens. Among the examples listed are the cases of Shane Alan Coffman and Colton Levi Clark.
In February 1996, Shane’s bones were found in a freezer behind a mobile home in Newalla. In October 1995, Bertha Jean Coffman had notified school officials that Shane and her other children would be home-schooled.
Prosecutors said at the time Shane’s remains were discovered, investigators discovered children in the home living in cages. Two of the children had to be hospitalized due to malnourishment.
Shane, 8, was thought to have died in August 1995, from what prosecutors described at the time as “excessive and unreasonable discipline." But Coffman's boyfriend, Donald Lee Gilson, continued abusing the other children while they were allegedly being home-schooled.
Coffman and Gilson were convicted on a number of counts, including first-degree murder and child abuse.
In 2003, shortly after moving in with their aunt and uncle, Colton, 9, and his brother, Homer Clark, were taken out of public school in Seminole to be home-schooled. About three years later, Colton disappeared.
About a decade after Colton was last seen, his aunt, Rebecca Faith Clark, and uncle, James Rex Clark, were charged on counts of first-degree murder and child abuse.
Colton’s brother reported that his aunt and uncle had “brainwashed” him into telling authorities that Colton was upset about an upcoming appointment with a psychiatrist and that he either ran away or was picked up by his father.
Prosecutors alleged the couple had killed Colton in March or April 2006 by beating him. Homer Clark told investigators the final beating came after his brother was accused of stealing a ring at the Clarks’ farm.
During the trial, Homer Clark described the beatings he and Colton suffered. The last time he saw Colton, the boy was lying beaten and motionless on a couch.
Jurors found the couple guilty on counts of first-degree murder and child abuse. Colton's body has not been found.
'Kids need a right to protection'
Wilson, the Christian home-school group spokeswoman, said she disagrees with the idea of an annual checkup for home-schooling families. She said any measure forcing families to open their homes for inspection would violate Fourth Amendment protections.
“Without probable cause and a warrant, we don’t have to let people into our homes," Wilson said. "You don’t have to let someone into your home just to make sure that the things going on in your home are legal."
Patterson, the home-schooling reform advocacy group volunteer, said home-schooled students don't come into regular contact with mandatory reporters, who are required to notify authorities about possible instances of abuse. In public and private schools, children regularly see teachers, nurses and other people in higher positions of authority, all of whom are mandatory reporters. But that isn't the case for home-schooled children, she said.
Hearing reports of the abuse the 15-year-old boy in Lincoln County underwent gave Patterson a knot in her stomach, she said.
Although she said she’s often accused of being “anti-home schooling,” Patterson said that description couldn’t be further from the truth. She described herself as pro-child and pro-family. She believes parents should have the right to choose how they educate their children.
“I believe that the kids need a right to protection as well," she said. "It’s not just about the parent’s right to choose an education. It’s about the children’s right that they be protected."