Tuesday, June 14, 2016 | One comment

Utah Judge Compels Suicidal Teenager to Attend Public School Despite Being Legally Homeschooled


UPDATE: One day after this interview was published—and after it went viral throughout Utah—Judge Bazelle recused herself from the case. The case is now pending before Judge Noonan and will next have a hearing on October 31.

Editor’s note: The following is a lightly edited interview with Diane and her daughter Sarah who have been charged with contempt of court for disobeying a judge’s order to compel Sarah to attend a public school, when Diane has decided instead to homeschool her. The stress from this situation has led Sarah, a junior in high school, to attempt suicide more than once.

Due to the emotional stress of this ordeal along with pending litigation—which Libertas Institute has intervened to provide—and at the young woman’s request, we have changed both of their names to keep them anonymous for the time being.

Libertas Institute has reviewed the relevant laws, court documents, and audio recordings from each court appearance to substantiate the family’s claims. The views expressed below do not necessarily represent Libertas Institute.

Libertas Institute: Tell our readers how this experience began.

Diane: Sarah was charged with habitual truancy in November 2015 for missing “97 unexcused class periods” throughout the previous year. She had been struggling emotionally and dealing with bullying at school and had a hard time being on campus.

Sarah: We had to show up at the Fourth District Juvenile Court before Judge Suchada Bazzelle. When she asked me why I was missing school, I told her this:

I feel like going to school makes me want to… I’d rather commit suicide than walk in the halls of school. I’ve been treated really badly by other students and teachers. And I’ve never felt it was a safe place to be.

It was not an easy thing for me to even be able to go on the days that I did. I would feel that I was trapped and alone. I could not stand being there. I got counseling and I was on medication and nothing seemed to help. When I was at school, everything made it worse. I could not stand it.

LI: Did the judge show any compassion?

Diane: Not at all. She threw the book at us and didn’t believe Sarah because she couldn’t provide any evidence showing what was done to her. We tried doing the Home & Hospital program for her so there could be some flexibility, but a school boundary change put us in the middle of a game of hot potato, with neither school wanting anything to do with it.

Things had gotten so bad that last fall I decided it would be better to homeschool Sarah, so I went to the Alpine School District office to fill out the affidavit. The woman I spoke with told me that the district has 30 days to sign off on the form (which is not correct at all; once the affidavit is submitted I am legally homeschooling my daughter and no approval is needed). She said that the truancy officer would be notified if I attempted to homeschool Sarah and that it may result in automatically having to appear before Judge Bazzelle. Sure enough, there we were in court.

LI: Did you feel like your rights were being violated?

We wanted to leave the state but [Judge Bazzelle] wouldn’t let us, simply because Sarah had missed some school.

Diane: Well at that point, I didn’t understand that I had the legal right to homeschool. I trusted the school administrators who lied to me, and followed their advice. But I explained to the judge that my husband had a job offer in another state and that we were planning on moving. In fact, we had an offer in on our house. Judge Bazzelle said “you’re prohibited… you can’t move until I say so.” We wanted to leave the state but she wouldn’t let us, simply because Sarah had missed some school.

INTERVIEW CONTINUES BELOW

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LI: What was it like to be in court, all because of missing school?

Diane: Sarah is a good girl. She gets good grades, wants to learn, wants to go to college and get a great job. But she has some struggles to deal with. And when I saw that the very people who are supposed to be helping her were instead pushing her into an environment that was hurting her, I became very frustrated.

Sarah: The second time we were in court, there were so many people there that the judge was surprised. (It was a different judge this one time, Judge Cordell; the rest of the times it was Bazzelle.) When the judge confirmed we were there because of my truancy, he said “We have a lot of people here for that charge! I’ve done homicides with fewer people.” It was crazy that all of this was necessary.

Homeschooling is a legal alternative, but we weren’t allowed to do it. They were forcing Sarah to attend public school.

Diane: That time in court, Sarah’s attorney said “I think we need to allow her to exercise her options which are allowed in Utah law,” referring to being able to homeschool her as an option. The judge (again, it wasn’t Bazzelle this time) said “Yeah, her options are defined by the law. And those options are either be in school or be pursuing one of the alternatives.” Homeschooling is a legal alternative, but we weren’t allowed to do it. They were forcing Sarah to attend public school.

LI: You said before that you didn’t turn in the homeschool affidavit, though. Did you finally do it?

Diane: Yes, in fact on two other occasions I turned one in. The third time was in March of this year. I had the affidavit notarized and turned it in. The school district administrators provided the form to the court, and the next week we were again before Judge Bazzelle to explain why Sarah still wasn’t attending school.

I was blown away: the judge made an order telling the school district officials that they didn’t have to comply with my affidavit. Specifically, Judge Bazzelle said this:

Because this matter is pending before the court and has been pending before the court a couple of months now, I think that the requests that have been filed with the district are belated and I’m going to direct that the district not act on either one of those requests at this time, until we reach an adjudication in this matter. I’ll reconsider the question at that time.

Sarah’s attorney spoke up seeking clarification, and the judge reaffirmed “by order of the court, I’m going to relieve them of that.” She was basically saying that the school district didn’t have to fulfill my request.

The district has no responsibility and so the judge telling them that they can’t “act on my request” is ridiculous. There’s nothing to act on. It’s my right.

But state law is very clear that I have the right to homeschool Sarah and I don’t need the school district’s permission. They don’t have to process anything before I can exercise that right. The law states, “A local school board shall excuse a school-age minor from attendance, if the school-age minor’s parent files a signed and notarized affidavit with the school-age minor’s school district of residence.” That’s it. No permission is needed. The district has no responsibility and so the judge telling them that they can’t “act on my request” is ridiculous. There’s nothing to act on. It’s my right.

INTERVIEW CONTINUES BELOW

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LI: Let’s be clear here. Sarah was in trouble for not attending school. So you attempted to homeschool her instead, and the school district administrators told you not to and the judge then prohibited you from doing so?

Diane: That’s correct. When Sarah’s attorney told the judge that I had the right to homeschool her, and that her therapist said that’s what needed to happen for her, the judge said this:

Nothing’s being done with this child. I need her to go to school. She was told that by Judge Cordell, and she was told that by me. She needs to go to school.

There’s a lot of effort being put in to get her out of school. I just want her to go to school. That’s all she needs to do. She needs to go to school. That’s the law.

LI: But that’s not the law, as you point out. The law also says that you can homeschool. Sarah, how does this make you feel?

Sarah: I told the judge that going to school causes me all sorts of problems, and she wouldn’t listen. She kept forcing me to go to public school instead of letting my mom pull me out. I am really confused by it all and just want to find the quickest way to make all of these problems go away.

Utah County already has a big problem with teen suicides, and the judge’s lack of flexibility and understanding seemed destined to perpetuate this problem.

Diane: This hearing was in March, and in addition to telling the school district they didn’t have to allow me to homeschool (which is bogus), the judge said Sarah “is to attend main stream school every class, everyday, be on time, do the required work and maintain passing grades of C or better.” There was no thought or regard for her mental well being. Utah County already has a big problem with teen suicides, and the judge’s lack of flexibility and understanding seemed destined to perpetuate this problem. I don’t want that for my daughter.

LI: Did your case go to trial?

Diane: Yes. After some pre-trial hearings, we were back in court in May for a trial. On advice of her attorney, Sarah pled guilty to the truancy charge, and that’s when the hammer fell.

Between court dates, Sarah had suffered an injury on her left knee. Her doctor provided a note for the school to excuse her for several weeks due to the significant pain she was experiencing. But the judge completely disregarded it and wouldn’t consider the excuse as valid unless we had dragged the doctor into the courtroom to tell the judge in person.

My rights were being violated, and what’s worse, the people doing it were lying about it.

The school administrators also claimed in court that I had asked them to shred Sarah’s homeschool exemption. That is absolutely not true. And besides, they didn’t do that; they provided a copy of it to myself and the court, which they couldn’t have done if they had destroyed the document. My rights were being violated, and what’s worse, the people doing it were lying about it.

Judge Bazzelle then issued a lengthy list of orders. She continued to show her bias, saying that Sarah had to go to a “main stream school” rather than homeschool, and that she should just suck it up and go to school despite the physical pain and psychological problems. In this May court hearing she said this:

Well what I’m asking Sarah to do is not extraordinary. I’m asking her to go to school. It’s just really that simple. If there’s all this other talk about this plan or do homeschooling or UVU… like, whatever. That’s all a lot more work than what I’m asking you to do.

The point is that she can’t “ask” (or order) Sarah to go to school. I have the right to homeschool her. All of this is because Sarah wouldn’t attend a handful of days in public school, and now they won’t let me educate her in the home. It’s ridiculous.

LI: What did the judge order you and Sarah to do?

For every class that Sarah was tardy, the judge ordered her “to bring a king or movie sized candy bar” to her at the next court hearing.

Diane: Well, like before, Sarah was ordered to go to school every day. But get this: for every class that she was tardy (even by one minute), the judge ordered her “to bring a king or movie sized candy bar” to her at the next court hearing.

LI: Come again? The judge wanted candy bars for Sarah’s tardiness?

Diane: That’s right. And when I was in court a couple weeks later on a contempt charge—because I was not “ensuring Sarah is in school”—I saw several teenagers in there with bags of candy to comply with similar orders they had been given by the judge. We refused to bring the judge any candy.

Sarah was also ordered to attend summer school, to sign up for school tracking, to provide a weekly progress report, meet with the school counselor, create an academic plan, comply with whatever a probation officer ordered, and be on house arrest anytime there was a single missing assignment she hadn’t completed.

LI: Did you abide by these orders?

Diane: No. I was homeschooling, even if the judge claimed I shouldn’t or couldn’t. The stress from all of these court proceedings caused Sarah to attempt suicide again, so I want to do what helps her—not do what hurts her because a judge tells me to, despite my right to homeschool.

LI: Do you think the judge is in the wrong?

Diane: She absolutely is. This is an abuse of authority. She has no right to deny me of my rights.

A doctor wrote, “Due to the nature of her anxiety, attending school is very detrimental to Sarah’s health at this time, as well as her safety.” And yet attending school is precisely what the judge was ordering.

We have signed statements from Sarah’s doctors—both for her knee issues as well as her anxiety and depression—stating that she should not be in school. For example, one doctor wrote that Sarah “should not return to school until symptoms are managed.” Another wrote that it would be “counter-productive for her to return to school.” Another wrote, “Due to the nature of her anxiety, attending school is very detrimental to Sarah’s health at this time, as well as her safety.” And yet attending school is precisely what the judge was ordering.

LI: Sarah, what do you want at this point?

Sarah: I want this problem to go away. I want time to recover and not have to deal with judges and truancy officers and school administrators and county prosecutors. I want to focus on getting ready for college and my future.

LI: Diane, what do you want at this point?

I have the right as her mother to homeschool her, and the recommendations of multiple medical professionals agree that’s what I should do. The judge is out of line.

Diane: I want what’s best for Sarah, and in this case, that means pulling her out of the school system. The judge doesn’t want me to, but she doesn’t have that power, even though she thinks she does. I have the right as her mother to homeschool her, and the recommendations of multiple medical professionals agree that’s what I should do. The judge is out of line.

LI: If you had two minutes to speak with state lawmakers, what message would you deliver?

Diane: Parental rights are not theoretical. Judges can’t disregard these rights when what Sarah needs, and what her doctors agree with, is time away from public school. Judge Bazzelle has abused her authority and harmed my daughter by forcing her into an environment and circumstance that has provoked thoughts of suicide. I want to get out of her courtroom and on with our life. Lawmakers should ensure there is accountability for judges so they cannot do this type of thing in the future. No family should have to suffer what mine has.

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  1. […] Institute recently published an interview with one such parent affected by these truancy laws. Diane’s daughter Sarah was struggling […]

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