In wake of high-profile child deaths, lawmakers eye greater home schooling oversight

Published: Feb. 5, 2018 at 5:35 PM HST|Updated: Feb. 5, 2018 at 5:38 PM HST
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(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Some state lawmakers are calling for more state oversight of families who home-school their children.

The push comes in the wake of a high-profile child abuse death in Hilo: 9-year-old Shaelynn Lehano died in 2016 of starvation and her parents and grandmother are facing murder charges.

Lehano had been pulled from school before her death.

"Peter Boy" Kema, who died at 6 in 1997 and whose parents last year admitted to manslaughter, was also home-schooled.

State Sen.Kaialii Kahele, who represents Hilo, said the cases underscore that more needs to be done to ensure kids who are home-schooled are safe.

"We have to fight for some of these kids," he said.

Kahele introduced Senate Bill 2323, which would require Child Welfare Services to conduct a child abuse and neglect inquiry into a child whose parents or legal guardian want to home-school.

That information would go to the Department of Education so the state could do a background check before approving or denying the applicant.

"If a parent that has a history of abuse and neglect wants to pull the child out of school and remove them from that layer of protection this piece of legislation would close that loophole," Kahele said.

But home schooling advocate Lora Burbage, of Christian Homeschoolers of Hawaii, said Kahele's proposal is flawed and unfairly singles out home-schooling families without including all parents of school-age children..

"If you begin to allow the government to begin policing --- and they're not looking at the net of the biggest group of child abusers --- then we're being targeted, we're being discriminated against," she said.

Statistics show that about 7,000 children in Hawaii are educated at home.

Kahele said background checks would begin with parents who notify the DOE of their intent to home-school then eventually include all home-schooling families.

"CWS does a quick background check. If you're not in the system -- no problem," he said.

But Burbage believes there's a major problem with the idea.

"There's no data that says that the home-schooled population has the highest or a very high number of abuse," she said.

Kristi and Kyle Murai home-school their four kids, ages elementary to high school. They worry Kahele's idea unfairly portrays home-schools as a place where child abuse happens in greater numbers than other settings.

"Whether it be public, private, charter or homeschooling, abuse is found in all these sectors," Kyle Murai said.

Added Burbage: "If child abuse is truly the bottom line here then they're going after the wrong population."

Kahele said parents whose intent to home school is denied could appeal the decision. He said homeschooling families have contacted his office to voice their concerns with his bill. He insists he isn't against homeschooling, but is trying to prevent child abuse.

"What I'm hoping is that we can look at the bigger picture and say, 'Hey, we're not saying you can't home-school your child.' We're saying that what happened to Shaelynn Lehano or Peter Boy Kema or other children across America or here in Hawaii won't happen to another child again," he said.

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