Home schooling's latest appeal: safety

Colorado shootings contribute to a surge of inquiries about teaching at

Janice Quitmeyer heard the first news of the Columbine High School shooting on her car radio, while driving with her three children. As she listened in shock to the report, her 9-year-old son posed a question: "Doesn't this make you glad that you home- school us, Mommy?"

Indeed it did. And in the weeks since the school massacre in Littleton, Colo., a host of other parents apparently are nurturing similar sentiments toward home schooling.

Home-school organizations nationwide report that inquiries have increased almost fourfold since Columbine. And as public faith in America's schools continues to erode, the choice of a growing number of parents is driven as much by safety concerns as by academic and ethical standards.

"The day after Columbine, our phones starting ringing off the hook," says Michael Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association in Purcellville, Va. "People called us saying, 'We really need to begin home-schooling. We've been thinking about this for a long time, and this is the straw that broke the camel's back.' "

In recent years, safety issues have been more on the minds of parents who opt for home schooling. But it was the horror of the April 20 fatal shootings at Columbine - in the heart of suburban America - that brought focus to the issue for many who before were uncertain about educating their children at home.

"The main reasons for home schooling that have always existed are still there. But the safety issue is becoming very prevalent," says Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute in Salem, Ore. "It makes home schooling look more attractive than it ever did."

Trend may peak

An estimated 1.5 million children in the United States are home educated. Since 1985, the number of home-schooled students increased between 15 percent and 20 percent each year.

Yet in the aftermath of the latest wave of school violence, the percentage who switch to home schooling this year may peak.

"A young person coming into a school shooting a gun sets people off completely. And it's not just a few kids anymore," Dr. Ray says. "I think people recognize that."

"Somehow, school shootings seemed pretty remote to most people before," agrees Mr. Farris. "After Columbine, it wasn't remote to anyone anymore. The whole idea that 'this can't happen in my community' is pretty much shattered."

While interest in home schooling is on the upswing nationwide, the most dramatic increase is, not surprisingly, in Colorado. In the days since the Columbine shooting, calls to the state Department of Education about home schooling have more than doubled.

Many parents readily volunteer that recent school violence prompted their call, says Suzie Parker, a program assistant there. "I've had people call from around the state - not just in the Denver area - saying that they don't feel their children are safe in the schools."

At Christian Home Educators of Colorado, the state's largest advocacy organization for home schooling, inquiry calls have more than quadrupled since Columbine, reports Ms. Quitmeyer, the group's public-relations coordinator.

But Quitmeyer - who home-schools her three children - cautions against home schooling if parents' motivation is purely for safety, she says. "Home schooling is a way of life. It's a huge commitment. Your reasons for home schooling have to go further than [safety]."

Other motives

Safety concerns take various forms - and aren't restricted to gun-toting students, says Dorothy Karman, a Portland, Ore. mother, who home-educated her son and daughter for 15 years (both are now enrolled in college).

Long before school shootings hit the public consciousness, parents were motivated by a desire to limit unwanted peer influences like drugs, alcohol, and premarital sex. "Parents choose home schooling to have more influence over their child's life," she says. "We spent a lot of time together as a family. And we still do."

But accompanying these reasons has been a recognition "that public schools are pretty dangerous," says Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association.

Despite the benefits to home-schooled children, some identify a significant downside to the trend.

"If a large percentage of families begin to home-school, the result would be the loss of a terribly important piece of the community: the public school," says Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States, in Denver.

"Schools are the community glue, and when people don't feel they have a stake in the community, then things deteriorate badly," Mr. Newman adds. "This society desperately needs more of a sense of community, not less."

Philosophically, Farris doesn't disagree. "Some parents do regret this," he says. "But they believe that the price for their own children is too high." Still, he doesn't believe the ideal America is one in which children are educated at home - or in private schools. "I want public schools to improve to the point where parents can feel safe sending their kids there. I don't want people to have to choose home schooling out of fear. They should choose it on its own merits."

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