Lila M. Ferguson, 38, and Molly M. Williams, 42, who were living together in New Haven at the time, are each alleged to have removed their sons from public school in January 2006. Both told school officials they would be home schooling their children, according to the probable-cause affidavits. Ferguson did not enroll her son in a public school again until Sept. 16, 2008, and Williams did not do so until Jan. 12.
If convicted, each woman could face six months to three years in prison. Both are scheduled to plead guilty in court today.
This is the first time in Allen County, as far as representatives know, that prosecutors have charged anyone with educational neglect. The closest known case to the area occurred last year, when a Wabash woman was charged with the same crime because her fifth-grade son missed 10 days of school the previous year, six of them unexcused. Also, he was tardy 28 times and, according to his teacher, sometimes arrived dirty, smelling of urine and without his homework. The woman later agreed to plead guilty in return for a 1 1/2 -year suspended sentence, which she is serving on probation instead of jail, as long as her son attends school.
“What is it going to take for people to realize that education is the most important thing?” asked Kevin Brown, a Fort Wayne Community Schools board member who has been seeking more accountability for parents.
“I'm happy to see (that these cases were filed). It gives us teeth to actually say, ‘If you're not going to do your job (as a parent), then the community needs to hold you accountable.'”
Brown said it's just a start for Allen County, though, where 2,275 students in the county's public schools were reported having more than 10 unexcused absences in the 2007-08 school year, the most recent data available. The majority attended a FWCS school. Brown said now the prosecutor's office needs to consider filing charges against parents whose children are excessively tardy and have missed school numerous times. Allen County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Mike McAlexander said he would not comment on why these two cases were filed because they are still pending, but Prosecutor Karen Richards told The News-Sentinel last year that it would have to be “really bad” before it came to the attention of the criminal court system.
“(Educational neglect cases are) very difficult to prosecute, and if you're dealing with home schooling, it makes it more difficult,” said Steve Johnson, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, who knew of only a handful of cases ever prosecuted in Indiana. “It's very difficult, but not impossible.”
When it comes to home schooling in Indiana, the state has few regulations. Attendance must be kept but “solely to verify the enrollment and attendance of a student upon request of the state superintendent or superintendent of the school corporation in which the nonpublic school is located,” according to Indiana Code. A home school is considered a nonpublic, or private, school by the state.
Other than that, the state does not mandate certain subject requirements, and in the same respect, does not require testing.
“There are so many unknowns,” Williams' attorney, Zachary Witte, said about what he called the lack of clarity in the state statute.
Defense attorneys in both cases have tried unsuccessfully to dismiss the charges, stating that the statute is vague in defining what “education as required by law” is. Webster's Dictionary defines education as “the process of training and developing the knowledge, skill, mind, character, etc., especially by formal schooling; teaching; training.”
“The problem is, when you say ‘educate,' what do you mean?” said Ferguson's attorney, Skip Campbell. “Ordinary citizens need to know what they need to do or not to do to avoid the state prosecuting them.”
Students with more than 10 unexcused absences, by districtFort Wayne Community Schools
District enrollment: 31,561
East Allen County Schools
District enrollment: 10,193
Southwest Allen County Schools
District enrollment: 6,778
Northwest Allen County Schools
District enrollment: 6,242
Note: Data from 2007-08 school year, latest available
Source: Indiana Department of Education