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Mother takes home schooling case to federal investigators

The mother who accuses the Buffalo Public Schools of instigating her arrest for home schooling her children is now taking her case to the federal government.

Kiarre Harris, whose children were removed from her custody by a Family Court judge, has filed civil rights complaints with both the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that both the school district and Erie County Child Protective Services discriminated against her because she is black. She also claims that both agencies engage in practices that have a negative impact on black families.

"They're racially discriminating against me," she said after a news conference Wednesday. "If they can do this to me, they should do this to all of the white women home schooling in the suburbs."

Harris announced the federal complaints alongside members of the District Parent Coordinating Council, which has been supporting her in the case.

The mother in recent weeks has alleged that the district failed to properly process her home schooling paperwork, and as a result notified Child Protective Services that her two children, ages eight and 11, were not in school. Harris was arrested and her two children were taken into custody by CPS.

"At this point the only goal we have in working with Miss Harris is for her to get her children back," said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the parent council.

Several sources familiar with this and other educational neglect cases, however, told The Buffalo News that CPS would only remove children from their parent's care in cases of persistent neglect or when the children are in imminent danger. The school district also issued a statement saying that CPS was involved with Harris' case before she filed her intent to home-school with the district, which she did in early December.

There are 339 children in Buffalo who are being home-schooled, and this is the first time anyone has accused the district of having a parent arrested for it.

When asked whether there were other CPS charges brought against Harris, Radford noted there were seven – five of which pertained to school attendance – and said CPS never should have been contacted to investigate in the first place.

Harris said the other two charges pertained to old CPS investigations.

State law requires that children attend school until they reach 16, but there is little the district can do if students don’t show up every day. A call to Child Protective Services is one of the few consequences that anyone can threaten for a chronic truant. CPS, however, has limited utility. Unless a child is found to be in physical danger, it is unlikely the county will take action. In extreme cases, CPS could remove a child and place him or her in foster care, but that outcome is rare for chronic truants.

At the end of December, about 28 percent of Buffalo students were flagged as having chronic or severe absenteeism, defined as having missed at least 10 percent of the time they should be in school.

Radford, who has been involved with school issues for years, said this is also the first time he is aware of where a child was removed from their parents because of an attendance issue. He said that led him to believe district officials were trying to make an example of Harris for pulling her children from the system.

Her complaint to the department of education maintains that the state's home schooling regulations have a negative impact on minority families. Parents must submit a detailed educational plan outlining what they intend to teach their children. They must also submit an annual evaluation, either in the form of a test or portfolio of their work.

School officials have reached out to Harris to get more information about what happened in her case, but on Wednesday the mother said that meeting never happened and declined to discuss why.

Harris also wants the federal justice department to investigate the policies and practices of CPS, arguing that she and other black families have been discriminated against under the state's child protection laws.

"What we've seen is nothing has moved yet," Radford said. "Instead of being sensitive to the parent everyone is covering up for everyone else."

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