News: CJ Exclusives

CBS Defends Homeschool Reports

NC's Rep. McIntyre was among those expressing concern to network

CBS News President Andrew Heyward, in response to a complaint by 33 congressmen who alleged that the network’s broadcasts Oct. 13 and Oct. 14 reflected poorly on homeschooling, defended the reports that connected child abuse to the growing educational movement.

In a letter dated Nov. 6, 2003, Heyward told the congressmen, including North Carolina Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-7th, that “it is unfortunate that few of you actually saw the reports in question.” McIntyre was the only Democrat to sign the letter to CBS.

“Despite what your constituents may have told you, this was not an attack on home schools,” Hayward wrote. “This was a look at how some bad people have taken advantage of the home school system to hide the abuse, neglect, and even murder of their children.”

“CBS Evening News” reported in October that there is a “dark side of homeschooling,” in which parents exploit allegedly lax homeschooling laws to hide the abuse, and even murder, of their children. The first night’s segment focused on the case of Nissa and Kent Warren in Johnston County, whose 14-year-old son Brandon committed suicide after he shot to death his half-sister and brother in 2001.

In their letter, dated Oct. 22, 2003, to Heyward the congressmen wrote that the report “implied a tragic murder-suicide in rural North Carolina was somehow evident of a “dark side” of homeschooling, which justified further government regulation of home education. They called the “tenuous connection” between the Warren case and the millions of families who homeschool “absurd.”

“What your correspondent, Vince Gonzales, failed to mention in his segment was the numerous child protection laws already that could have been used to safeguard the children in question,” the letter said. “North Carolina Social Services had repeated contact with the family and had even removed the children from the home for a time.

“Yet, Mr. Gonzales’ solution is to shackle homeschool parents across the country with further laws and regulations that would not have prevented the tragedy in question.”

Heyward responded that the report “did not…suggest that one tragic case in North Carolina was ‘somehow evidence of a ‘dark side’ of home schooling.’”

“It seems from the wording of your letter that you may be unaware that this was a two-part investigation,” Heyward wrote.

He said that the second part of the two-night series reported that CBS News found “dozens of cases nationwide of home school parents who had abused, neglected, or even killed their children.” On the second night’s report the network cited no more than six other cases, with little detail, which the congressmen acknowledged in their letter to Heyward.

“Your letter reflects a view repeated in other letters critical of this report that the North Carolina case was a failure of social services,” Heyward wrote to the congressmen. “But the fact is that not ONCE during the five years the Warrens were home schooling in North Carolina did anyone from the state’s Department of Non-Public Education visit the children, even though the parents had been convicted of horrendous child abuse when they were home schooling in Arizona.”

However, Johnston County Social Services did visit the Warrens’ home on several occasions. In their letter to Heyward, the congressmen wrote that Gonzales “failed to mention…the numerous child protection laws (that) already exist that could have been used to safeguard the children in question.”

Heyward responded that “in fact, there is no law that requires authorities to check on children who are taught at home.” He said that in the Warren case, “social workers were in the process of trying to arrange a safer environment when the children died.”

“The point [Heyward] keeps coming back to is, “is the government overseeing this?” said Hal Young, who was president of North Carolinians for Home Education and was interviewed in the broadcast in October. “The point in CBS’s mind is government control.”

In their letter the congressmen said that CBS instead should have reported the widespread positive results from homeschooling, rather than take “a handful of tragic incidents and, from them, cast aspersions on the entire homeschool movement.” “CBS News has done just that on numerous other occasions” and the controversial report in October included at least seven “sound bites” that either refuted the abuse argument or cited the positive effects of homeschooling, Heyward said.

“It is not known how widespread the (abuse) problem is,” Heyward said. “But the fact is that some parents have taken advantage of the freedoms enjoyed by dedicated, hard-working home school families in order to cover up child abuse. We think that’s worth reporting.”

Young said Heyward’s response did not surprise him.

“They aired the story for a partisan purpose and they are standing by what they intended to do,” he said.

Young said he had telephone discussions and “stayed in constant contact” with CBS News as it put together the report. “We gave them every piece of information we had,” he said, and recommended that they talk to North Carolina’s Department of Social Services about the Warren case. He also recommended the network talk to representatives of the Home School Legal Defense Association and the National Home Education Research Institute, whom Young said had national expertise on the issue. He said the CBS reporters told him it was “not the story we wanted to tell.”

“They had a story they wanted,”Young said, “and they wanted an angle to put on it, (which was) “Why isn’t the government more involved in (homeschooling) families’ lives?

“And that boils down to a matter of liberty for all of us, regardless of our educational choices.”

Paul Chesser is associate editor of Carolina Journal. Contact him at [email protected]