Jenny was released from a 27-day jail sentence in June of 2023. Her violation? Taking her child with special needs out of a bad educational environment and moving him to homeschool as permitted by law. And Jenny is not your average parent: she is especially qualified to do so with her bachelor’s degree in education, and master’s degree in special education and early Intervention. How could this happen?
Jenny is a single mom of a thirteen-year-old son named Luca, who lives in the Pittsburgh area. Jenny has advocated for her son since kindergarten when he was provided with an Individualized Education Plan for anxiety. Bullying by students and staff, punishments, and isolation caused sporadic school refusal. Jenny did everything she could to try to get Luca to school, but some late arrivals or absences were unavoidable.
There seemed to be some relief at one point when Jenny was able to find private schooling for him, but a change in administration prompted a return to district school.
Then Covid hit, and Jenny found herself sitting next to Luca, teaching him every day. She was able to see firsthand the content being provided by the district — and she was not pleased. Jenny decided to focus on balancing Luca’s mental well-being and academics; sometimes assignments were late due to vacillating anxiety levels.
With a return to traditional school schedules post-Covid, Jenny realized that Luca’s IEP was not being followed and his anxiety heightened, causing a downward spiral. The tipping point was after Easter break when a fellow student told Luca, “So kill yourself.” Jenny had enough, and felt she had to do something for her son. She mailed in her homeschool affidavit to the district and followed up with telephone conversations, but the district disregarded her homeschool notification.
The situation was referred to the magistrate, who mandated an Attendance Improvement Meeting which was never scheduled. A month later, Jenny received notices to pay $1,000 in fines. The pressure to balance the impending magistrate action with limited monetary means and trying to keep her son safe was overwhelming for Jenny. Then came the notice to pay $2,000 in fines and court costs, or face time in jail. Jenny was taken to jail for 27 days.
The result? A parent displaced, a child confused and living without his mother, and a mom remotely scrambling for options for her son.
Youth Advocate Programs, headquartered in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, reports that “Incarcerating the poor for their inability to pay fines is a real and current issue in America…Berks County, [an] economically depressed area of Pennsylvania…has jailed more than 1,600 parents since 2000. Two-thirds of them are women…The reality is that truant kids, their families and their schools need more resources and practical support to address the root causes of truancy, which are varied, complex and interactional. However, these resources should not be subsidized by poor kids and families.”
Jenny’s situation has not gotten any better. She has exhausted all help in her Pittsburgh and Allegheny County areas. She and her son are now estranged, and she is seeking legal help for parental alienation – all because she tried to save her child from harm. This never should have happened. We must do better for our children and families.
Sharon Sedlar is Founder and CEO of PA Families for Education Choice.