Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Interview: Scott Somerville – HSLDA Attorney/Activist

Below is an interview with Scott Somerville done via email. Scott is an attorney at the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). The first time I remember reading something by Scott was his chapter "Legalizing Home Schooling in the US: Family, Community and the Law” in Homeschooling in full view -- a Reader. I like his blog - Somerschool. Scott is currently co-posting with Daryl Cobranchi over at Home Education and Other Stuff.


I hope you enjoy the interview.
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Brief bio:

Scott and his wife started homeschooling when their oldest child was ready for kindergarten. Scott went to Harvard Law School and earned his law degree. He has since worked for the Home School Legal Defense Association and helped thousands of homeschoolers deal with aggressive government agencies. For more information see his: biography.


Personal:

What types of books do you like to read? What are some of your favorite books?

At the age of eleven, my draft-dodging friends turned me on to The Hobbit and I got hooked early on Middle Earth. As a teen, I was a science fiction addict. I read the classics: Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, plus anything else I could find with rockets, mutants, or time travel. I went off to Dartmouth College to become a research biochemist, but took a Logic course and wound up a Philosophy major. That might explain my fascination with geeky stuff: my two favorite books are the Bible and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in that order.

What was your experience with school growing up? Did you attend a public
school, a private school, or were you homeschooled?

My dad was a "mobile minister to the poor" in Boone County, West Virginia--the county with the third worst public schools in the state with the third worst public schools. I skipped first and eighth grades, wore Coke bottle glasses, had a silver tooth, and was hopelessly overweight. I was off the nerd charts in more ways than you can count! Mom did her best to keep school from killing any love I had of learning--we weren't homeschoolers (Dad was on Nixon's "enemies list" back then, and we couldn't take the risk), but we read Summerhill over and over. I got picked up by the police in St. Louis at the age of 11 because my parents put me on a bus for Sante Fe, New Mexico to get me out of school for a month. (They called home, found I was really SUPPOSED to be there, and let me go.) At 13, however, I got a full scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy, in New Hampshire. They were looking for diversity, and I was it! We didn't even have running water back home (it took me three months to really learn to flush), and suddenly I was hanging out with sons of Senators.

What did you enjoy about going to Harvard? What did you find the most
frustrating?


Harvard was fun. I'd been a programmer for almost ten years, and had served as President of the Christian Home Educators of New Hampshire. The politics at Harvard didn't bother me--I paid my liberal dues before a lot of my classmates had been born (the KKK had burned a cross on my lawn when I was two, and I'd marched in antiwar protests in 1969). I was frustrated by the inconsistency of my classmates, though--they didn't seem to be willing to follow their stated principles through to their conclusions. The one exception was my friend Peter, who had been a Catholic priest before he became a gay activist. Peter's Jesuit training meant that he would stick to his convictions, even when they led to politically incorrect conclusions--like his argument that rape defendants should have the same rights as other criminals. Sadly, people like Peter were rare.


Home School Legal Defense Association:

What was the path which lead you to working for the HSLDA?

I was just a programmer, earning the mortgage to house five eager young learners, when the State of New Hampshire announced their intention to triple the regulations on homeschoolers. A friend in the Department of Education tipped us off, and said that if we could start a new statewide group in the next two weeks, homeschoolers could get one more seat on the Rules Revision Subcommittee that was being formed. Two weeks later, the Christian Home Educators of New Hampshire existed, and, oddly enough, I was president. That put me on the Rules Revision Subcommittee: which had eleven members, eight of whom were from the public schools, and five of whom were lawyers. It wasn't exactly a level playing field! Elaine Rapp and I were the only two homeschoolers in the mix--but we held our own. The State Board of Education ultimately accepted our "minority report" and rejected the proposal the other nine came up with. By the time that battle was over, I was ready to leave programming and go off to law school to even things up!

What is a typical week for you working at the HSLDA?

There's no such thing. I start the day by plowing through a few score emails (unless I've been off to a conference, in which case I may be dealing with a few hundred messages). At any moment the phone may ring because a social worker, police officer, or truant officer is standing on some member family's porch. In September, I'm on high alert dealing with truant officers and school superintendents, whereas in legislative season (January-April), I'm responsible for anything some legislator may decide to do that might affect homeschoolers. As one 19th century judge put it, "No man's life, liberty, or property is safe while the Legislature is in session." From April to July I travel a lot, speaking at homeschool conferences. In between all these items, I help parents deal with everything from runaway teens to animal control officers. If it could affect your homeschool, it tends to wind up on my desk!

Tell us about an interesting case you've work on in the last year.

One military mom with three children recognized some symptoms of depression, and went to the doctor on base to get some help. The doctor found out she was homeschooling and reported her for child neglect. Under the law of the jurisdiction where she lives, you can't report mental health issues as "neglect" unless the condition makes it impossible for the parent to care for the child. That wasn't even remotely true in this case--but the doctor's prejudice against homeschooling outweighed the letter and the spirit of the law. HSLDA showed the relevant child neglect laws to Child Protective Services and asked whether CPS had any evidence the mother was actually incapable of caring for her children. Her decision to seek medical attention should have been evidence in her favor, not the sole basis for removing her children. The good news is, we were able to help this family out. The bad news is that there are so many similar cases out there!


Homeschooling:

Has any government agency come after your children? If so, what happened?


Not mine, but they tried to take a child out from under my roof once. It wasn't pretty. When my oldest child was about six, we had a single mother in our home for a year or so. Her little boy was about one year old when she got "hotlined" for child abuse. I wasn't in the home when the social workers showed up, and neither was my wife, but I called home for some reason and the single mom was in tears. "What's wrong?" I asked. "They've come to take my baby!" Things got a little interesting after that. I called some friends who drove straight over to our house--and they parked in the police cruiser. The tables turned as the house filled up with our friends and neighbors. The police said, "Your making this social worker feel very nervous!" My friends said, "How do you think this poor mother feels?" The police finally left the mother and child alone, but it took weeks and a lot of legal fees to sort things out. That's when I learned that the standard legal advice is, "Just do whatever the social worker says. If you don't have anyhing to hide, why fight it?"

Back when you got started to homeschool it was very rare. How did you and
your wife end up homeschooling?

A childless married friend named Linda came bouncing into our kitchen when my wife was expecting our third, saying, "I've found it! I've found it! I've found the answer to everything! It's called 'homeschooling'!" This was NOT the news Marcia was waiting to hear! She had been looking forward to putting our boys into some preschool somewhere so she could start a pottery studio. I loved the idea of homeschooling, but kept my mouth shut. We got a chance to go to the "Basic Homeschool Workshop" in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1985, and it changed our lives forever. When we stepped out of that seminar, we were hooked.

What effects do blogs have on homeschooling?

Blogs can assist the forward-thinking homeschooler and encourage the isolated mom, but the relationship between blogs and homeschools goes deeper than that, in my opinion. I see significant parallels between the two movements. Journalists and educators have a lot of power in our society; the two professions essentially shape what Americans think. When homeschoolers dared to teach their own, it drove the NEA crazy... and now that bloggers are in full swing, the mainstream media is feeling the heat. I see bloggers and homeschoolers as the two most obvious success stories in our post-modern world.

In general do you think homeschoolers are safer than 10 to 20 years ago?

Absolutely!

As you ponder the future, what areas do you think homeschoolers should be concerned about?

We live in interesting times, as they say in the old Chinese curse. Unity and diversity helped homeschoolers overcome a lot of bad laws in the 1980s, but that unity took a beating in 1991 when Dr. Raymond Moore published his White Paper. Dr. Moore alleged that "Protestant Exclusivists" had taken over homeschooling. There was quite a flurry of activity in the next few years, and by the time the dust settled, homeschoolers were more or less divided into two camps: what Dr. Mitchell Stevens call the "believers" and the "inclusives." I don't think our movement will be strong again until we find some way to get beyond this divide.


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3 comments:

derek said...

I'm new to the homeschooling world and am so glad to know that the HSLDA is out their for us. I hope I never have a reason to need them.

Patricia said...

I've always appreciated Scott Somerville. Now I know why! Excellent interview, Henry! Thank you very much. Blessings ~ Patricia

jodi said...

Scott Somerville is a true blessing God has given homeschoolers! I met him last year at our state homeschool convention, and he's not only an amazing attorney, but also a goofy, joy-filled brother in Christ! I learned through watching Scott last year that HSLDA is there not only to offer legal advice about homeschooling if ya need it, but also to invest in the best defense available...prayer and encouragement!

Great interview!