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Delegates battle over policy to prevent homeschool transfers in child abuse cases

Delegates debated over an amendment that would have prevented removing students from public schools to home-school environments if there is a pending child abuse or neglect investigation.

The amendment also would have applied in cases where the parent or a home-school teacher has been convicted of domestic violence, child abuse or neglect.

The main bill was 3408, which made some adjustments to the Hope Scholarship for students leaving the public school system. That bill, in itself, wasn’t controversial and wound up passing unanimously.

But the proposed amendment sparked an argument among delegates that lasted about an hour.

Delegate Shawn Fluharty moved to amend in the concept behind “Raylee’s Law,” named for an 8-year-old girl who died of abuse and neglect in 2018 after she was withdrawn from school, eliminating contact with educators under mandatory reporting requirements. That bill has been introduced since 2019, but has never passed.

The Dominion Post newspaper in Morgantown included “Raylee’s Law” in an editorial this week rounding up good bills that are going nowhere. “With the state offering more incentives to home-school children, this bill is more important than ever,” the newspaper wrote.

Fluharty agreed.

“This is about child abusers, people who were convicted of child abuse — convicted of child abuse, convicted of domestic violence,” said Fluharty, D-Ohio. “I don’t think child abusers should be educating kids in the public school system, private schools or home schools.”

Raylee Browning’s father and two other adults were sentenced last summer to prison time in her death. The adults were accused of mistreating her and then ignoring her symptoms when she got sick before dying the day after Christmas in 2018. The cause of death was sepsis caused by a bacterial pneumonia infection.

Fluharty’s amendment drew support from some delegates, including Todd Kirby, R-Fayette, a lawyer who participated in the court case.

“To this day, every time I hear her name mentioned or anybody with the same last name or first name, that child, the reports, flash right back into my head,” Kirby said.

“It might not have been caught,” he said of the abuse that ended her life, “but this gets another layer of protection.” He added, “You should not have the ability to move that child from the safety net of the public schools.”

Delegate Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, agreed that state policy should side with protecting children. She said delegates have responsibility as “elected officials who took the oath to protect those that we know by name and those we don’t.”

The amendment drew pushback from other delegates, particularly over the provision to prevent home-school transfers during pending investigations. Some asked whether school officials could be expected to know for sure if an investigation is underway.

“If you have children, you know that CPS will be called on you for anything, even if your child is out riding a bike during school hours,” said Delegate Kathie Hess Crouse, R-Putnam. “So this would make all those children be put back into the school system where there is nothing founded whatsoever.”

Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, characterized the amendment as insulting to home-school parents like his own family.

“It seems like every year I have to get up here and defend my own right to home-school my kids without the government interfering in that,” Steele said. “It seems like every year for five years, we show up and somebody tells me that me and my wife can’t be trusted.”

He made reference to comments sometimes made about policies that would make people want to leave the state. For home-school parents, he said, the feeling would be the same about the amendment under consideration — “flat-out garbage that does nothing but denigrate home-school parents, hardworking people that believe in what they’re teaching their kids, that love their kids, that take care of them.

“And we’re going to talk about criminals right now? That’s amazing. That’s absolutely amazing.”

In the end, the amendment was voted down, with 25 delegates in favor and 71 voting against it.

“This is about doing the right thing, protecting children from abusers,” Fluharty said right before the vote. “This may be an inconvenience on home schoolers, and it may be. Go ask Raylee how the inconvenience is right now. You’d have to visit her gravesite.”