- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2000

A Virginia couple has sued their local school district for falsely arresting them after they removed their son from classes to home-school him.

Gerald and Angela Balderson of Warsaw, Va., southeast of Fredericksburg near the Rappahannock River, filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Richmond County School District after they were arrested over the state's compulsory attendance law.

David Gordon, an attorney for the Purcellville, Va.-based Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), who is representing the family in the case, said yesterday he would not speculate why Bryan Almasian, an assistant principal at Richmond County Elementary School, called authorities on the Baldersons, who now are home-schooling their son Brett, 8.

The parents filed written notice, as required by Virginia law, on Feb. 25 with the Richmond County school superintendent's office that they would home-school their son, Mr. Gordon said. Mr. Almasian, however, notified police that their son had not been attending classes, and they were arrested on March 17 and charged with truancy, he said.

"I'm not sure [Mr. Almasian] didn't check with the superintendent," Mr. Gordon said of the principal's actions. "We assumed when we filed the lawsuit that he checked with the superintendent as he's required to do, but I think it's possible that the superintendent authorized the prosecution."

Mr. Almasian did not return a call for comment yesterday from The Washington Times. Richmond County school officials could not be reached for comment.

Criminal charges against the Baldersons have been dropped, Mr. Gordon said, but because of the family's treatment, Mrs. Balderson remains frightened.

"Mrs. Balderson was terrified to the extent that she didn't leave her child's side for the next week" after the arrest, Mr. Gordon said. "She was afraid that the social services department or some other official might try to take custody of the child." The couple's civil lawsuit, filed in Richmond County court in Warsaw on April 6, charges the Richmond County School Board and Mr. Almasian with gross negligence, false arrest and violation of the 14th Amendment's guarantee of due process of law. The suit seeks $50,000 in compensatory damages and $50,000 in punitive damages for each parent.

Mr. Gordon says the HSLDA is investigating two other instances in Virginia where home-school parents had difficulties removing their children from school. Both are in Goochland County.

In one of those cases, the family is being prosecuted for violation of the compulsory-attendance law. In the other, a mother was prosecuted in connection with home-schooling her teen-age daughter and successfully defended the charges, Mr. Gordon said.

In January, home-school parents Michael and Cynthia Hutchinson of Lansing, Mich., were incarcerated for 12 hours for removing their children from school to home-school them. They remain free on bond, but criminal charges have not been dropped, Mr. Gordon said. HSLDA attorneys are representing them in the criminal case but have not yet filed a civil lawsuit, he said.

"The law is getting better around the country, but some public school officials are anxious about the number of students leaving their school systems for private education and home education, so they are reacting by pressuring new home educators," he said. "Part of that pressure is with criminal prosecution."

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