Teen’s death brings up concerns about homeschooling guidelines

Investigators say Kyneddi Miller had not attended school since late 2019 or 2020 and hadn’t been outside the house more than a couple of times in the last four years.

The girl’s family submitted homeschooling documentation in February 2021, with her mother writing “We think homeschooling is the best now with the COVID-19 in order to keep our family safe.”

Any school system contact after that is in doubt. In response to recent requests for homeschooling assessments, the Boone County school system has responded to reporters that “no public records exist.” The chairwoman of the health committee in the House of Delegates asked in a memo if any academic assessments were submitted for Kyneddi Miller. County officials responded, “The answer to your inquiry is ‘No.’” This April, emergency responders were called to Kyneddi Miller’s home and found the 14-year-old girl dead on the bathroom floor, “emaciated to a skeletal state.”

Her mother and grandparents have been charged with felony child neglect causing death, prosecution that is ongoing in the Boone County courts system.

Over the past couple of months, questions have focused on whether state agencies could have provided stronger oversight to intervene for the girl’s wellbeing. A significant aspect of that concern is whether West Virginia’s guidelines surrounding homeschooling provide enough impetus for school systems to check in on homeschooling students or for families to respond.

State code allows exemptions from school attendance policies if homeschoolers provide an annual academic assessment, but school system leaders say too often that doesn’t occur.

Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, has expressed urgency to examine whether state policies require enough follow-through to ensure the wellbeing of children who leave local schools for an education in their own homes.

“What has become apparent above everything else is that this child was failed by her local network of safety nets. Through a series of circumstances, she became lost in the system, and she tragically lost her life. As Legislators, we have an obligation to protect our most vulnerable citizens, especially our children,” Blair stated last week.

“This case has highlighted that our current system of checks and balances has cracks. To that end, we will work with the Governor’s Office, the Department of Education, the Department of Human Services, and the State Police to discuss ways that we, legislatively, can improve our regulations related to homeschooled children to ensure that no children suffer this same outcome.”

Blair continued by encouraging members of the House of Delegates to join in that initiative. “We must act quickly to ensure that something of this magnitude doesn’t happen again.”

Delegate Amy Summers, R-Taylor, chairwoman of the House Committee on Health and Human Resources, said on social media and in comments to MetroNews that homeschool statute needs to be reviewed to determine what are the next steps if assessments are not submitted.

“We need to look at the homeschool statute and see if that word should be ‘shall’ instead of ‘may’ on the assessments,” Summers said in an interview with Jeff Jenkins of MetroNews, “because state law does say you need to turn in those assessments at 8th grade and they didn’t, so what is the next step? So I think that’s area to look at as well to make a change.”

Gov. Jim Justice, responding to questions from reporters in a Friday briefing, expressed openness to focusing on the strength of requirements for homeschooling families to report in to school systems. He suggested — but did not specify — that reforms could be considered in a special legislative session anticipated for August.

“We’re discussing with legislators now, and the homeschooling issue and we need to probably find a way to tighten up. That’s an area we sure can probably make things a little better. Any and every idea I’m open to,” Justice said in response to a question by reporter Charles Young of WV News.

Any reforms would be in the area of those followup requirements, the governor said in response to a question by Amelia Knisely of West Virginia Watch. “This is still somewhat in its infancy, and we’ve got to do more work with the legislators to see how we can tighten up some things to ensure that maybe nothing like this will ever happen again,” Justice said.

State schools Superintendent Michele Blatt, speaking on MetroNews’ “Talkline,” described legitimate concerns about annual assessments being completed, reviewed — and followed up on.

Blatt said school systems already deal with a 30% absenteeism rate of students in public schools. “And then you’re looking at 26,000 students across West Virginia that are homeschooled that have these reporting requirements every three years,” Blatt said. “So it’s a lot of hard work tracking multiple places that our students now receive education.”

Blatt described a balance that society tries to achieve: “School choice is important — parents have rights — but when you’re looking at a state that has 7,000 children in foster care, there’s a huge concern that we have families that do not take care of their own children.

“And when we look at data with students that leave during the school year to be homeschooled, we’re looking at 70 percent of those students were chronically absent before they were pulled out to be homeschooled. So you run into this situation where if there’s possible truancy charges, then they have the ability to pull their child out.”

Blatt concluded, “In a perfect world, we need to have eyes on all of our children.”