COLUMBUS, Ohio – It all started with a press conference Sen. Capri Cafaro, D-Hubbard, held announcing her bill to introduce Teddy’s law.
Theodore “Teddy” Foltz-Tedesco was brought to Akron Children’s Hospital Mahoning Valley with head trauma Jan. 21, 2013. His injuries, the result of a beating, were so severe he was immediately transferred to St. Elizabeth Health Center. Teddy died in the hospital on Jan. 26. He was 14.
Teddy was tortured and killed by his mother’s boyfriend. Despite suspicious and reports to child protective services, Teddy’s case was not investigated. When teachers reported the suspected abuse, his mother withdrew him from school – either to home-school him or move him to a charter school – it’s not clear which.
Teddy’s mother, Shain Widdersheim, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for child endangerment and obstructing justice. Zaryl Bush, her boyfriend at the time who was not living with Widdersheim or Teddy, was sentenced to life in prison for Teddy’s murder and for child endangerment, intimidation of witnesses and tampering with evidence.
Teddy’s grandmother tried to intervene. Friends and neighbors contacted social services. Police were told and Teddy’s teachers noticed and initiated a complaint with the county children services agency.
Teddy is a tragic example of a system that failed.
Perhaps there is a need for a new law, but the one Cafaro came up would not have helped Teddy if it had been in place – and it was as misguided as it was wrong.
Cafaro’s solution to a myriad of system failures in the reporting and investigation of child abuse was not to fix the gaps or address how Teddy’s case seemed to fall through the cracks. Her solution was to require all home schooling parents to go through a background check by local children services social workers to determine if they were ‘qualified’ to home school their kids.
The law would “require a public children services agency to recommend whether a child should be admitted to an Internet or computer-based community school or excused by a school district superintendent from attendance at school for home education.”
The Home School Legal Defense Association was more specific in their analysis:
“It requires all parents who home school to undergo a social services investigation which would ultimately determine if homeschooling would be permitted. Social workers would have to interview parents and children separately, conduct background checks and determine whether homeschooling is recommended or not. If it is not recommended, parents would have to submit to an ‘intervention’ before further consideration of their request to home school.”
Mark Stevenson, director of Ohioans for Educational Freedom, a state-wide political action committee, saw the press conference through a link on Facebook. Even though it was the week before Christmas, he sprang into action.
“We looked at the press conference and analyzed the text (of the bill),” he said. “We sent Facebook posts to regional home school groups late Monday (Dec. 16, 2013) and by Tuesday it was all over Facebook. By Tuesday mid-afternoon, it started hitting Ohio home-schoolers email lists.”
“It caught everyone’s attention,” he explained, “and by the time they read it, they understood how important it was.”
But sharing the news of what they began calling the “worst-ever homeschooling bill” was not enough.
“With watching the press conference, you could deduce that personally reaching out to (the Senator) was not going to be to our benefit,” Stevenson said, “so we constructed a message urging people to call her office and ask her politely but firmly to withdraw the bill.”
Withdrawing the bill was the only option, as there wasn’t much in the text Stevenson thought they could agree upon. “It would have had such far-reaching consequences,” he said.
He explained that home-schoolers just want to be left alone to do what they need to do to teach their kids. “If you want to maintain freedom,” he explained, “you have to get politicians to understand they can’t do something like this just because of one bad apple.”
Stevenson said they spoke to people in the Senator’s office to ask that the bill be withdrawn. They didn’t make much headway until Wednesday.
“By then,” Stevenson said, “she was starting to show signs of backing away from the bill due the number of phone calls she was getting.”
He said that by Wednesday, the sponsors of the bill were getting phone calls all day long. But it wasn’t just the sponsors. Home schooling parents called their own senators to object to the bill. Stevenson said their website registered 305,589 hits over two days. They put hourly updates on the web page to keep parents and other school choice groups informed of the progress they were making.
Stevenson knows it was the combination of calls, groups coming out against the bill and the concerns expressed by other senators that caused her to reconsider.
“And remember,” he said. “this was the week before Christmas.”
The plan was to start an educational effort via Twitter on Thursday, but Cafaro announced that she was going to withdraw the bill. Three days of mobilized opposition and the worst-ever home schooling bill was going away.
“Home-schoolers are used to jumping on such issues very quickly,” Stevenson said. “We have to be on top of infringements upon our freedom. Home-schoolers are pretty well connected within the state and across the country in terms of our network. We are concerned, just like everyone else, with how our freedoms are eroding.”
But the fight isn’t over.
The Senate was not in session when Cafaro announced she was withdrawing the bill. The formal action to do so had to wait until the after the holidays. She was scheduled to formally request the withdrawal on Jan. 14, 2014, but was not present that day in order to do so, according to the Senate President’s office. It is now scheduled for formal action on Wednesday, Jan. 22.
Stevenson and homes-choolers across the state will continue to monitor it to ensure the bill is actually withdrawn, as promised, but they are still cautious.
“There’s been some chatter with Teddy’s law people who say they support the bill,” Stevenson said. “Home-schoolers are sympathetic to the situation, but you can’t just write legislation that attacks law-abiding citizens and regulates people who are obeying the law.
“Teddy’s law people have made it clear that they’re not done with this,” he explained. “Since the initial legislation had such bad language, we can’t be anything but cautious and will be monitoring this for some time.”
But, Stevenson said, this is not a fight just for home schooling parents. It’s something charter schools, private schools, online schools and those who believe in school choice need to pay attention to.
“Everyone needs to be involved or one day, your rights are going to be gone,” he warned.
Authored by Maggie Thurber