Whose Kids Are They, Anyway?
At first, Chip Angell couldn't make head or tail of the woman's story. She phoned late last spring, a time of year when the warm daytime sun in Toccoa, Ga., gives way to an evening cool that makes for a pleasant stroll around the town square. A lawyer, Angell works out of a storefront office just off the square. For five years, he has run legal interference for many $6- and $7-an-hour workers who are headed for bankruptcy, tangled in insurance red tape, or just plain down and out.
These clients all tell hard-luck stories, but this woman was so distraught that tears jumbled her words and thoughts. "I can't believe they've done this,'' Angell remembers her saying.
Eventually, the pieces of her story fell together. As she told it, a counselor at the local middle school had taken her daughters, ages 13 and 15, to a county health clinic. There, she told Angell, they received birth-control pills and condoms. Clinic workers also gave them Pap smears and tests for the AIDS virus. The counselor used her own car for the trips, and she took the girls during school hours. School officials, the woman said, did not notify her or her husband. When the couple later confronted the counselor and asked for the test results, Angell says, they were told, "It's none of your business.''
That story soon became the basis for a $3 million lawsuit that Angell filed on behalf of the parents, Waymon and Sharon Earls. The suit alleges that Stephens County school officials violated the Earls' "parental rights'' as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Some legal experts say the suit has the groundbreaking profile to go to the U.S. Supreme Court. But eight months after its filing, it still sits in a federal courthouse in northern Georgia. The wheels of justice are moving, in Angell's words, "as slow as rust on a hubcap.''
In political circles, though, the Earls' story is moving at the speed of sound. Angell is probably years away from any chance of appearing before the Supreme Court, but he's already found a receptive audience in Washington, right across the street from the high court, in the U.S. Senate. There, in December, he testified in support of parent-rights legislation. Before a packed hearing room and a national television audience, he spoke of Sharon Earls and her frantic phone call, and of Waymon Earls, who, with tears welling in his eyes, told Angell, "They've stolen my girls.''
Sued in civil courts, Stephens County school officials were tried and found guilty in the political arena. Before lawyers had deposed even the first witness in the lawsuit, the allegations against them were broadcast across the country and trotted out before lawmakers as proof of school authorities' arrogance and abuse of power. How that happened, how a lawsuit in rural northern Georgia jumped the legal track and reached Capitol Hill's marbled halls, speaks volumes about the new movement for parent rights. Across the country, lawmakers are pushing parent-rights bills, and in many states, the emotional debate is stoked by stories like this one, a tale told out of school.
Civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, and even animal rights were long ago incorporated into America's political lexicon, but "parent rights'' is a relatively new catch phrase. Unlike other rights advocates, sponsors of this new movement do not seek government protection but protection from government itself.
Abuse of power by agents of government has brought this movement to life, its backers say. Representatives of schools and social-services agencies have arrogantly concluded that they can do a better job than parents when it comes to raising children. In its eagerness to provide for children, government hurts them instead, handing out condoms like candy, dictating values, and breaking up families with Gestapo-like investigations thinly disguised as abuse inquiries. "The time has come to put a stop to efforts to replace Mom and Dad with Big Brother,'' says Cathleen Cleaver, director of legal studies at the Washington-based Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy and research organization.
In the U.S. Congress, legislators are considering the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act, which aims to codify certain rights of parents against government. Lawmakers in 24 states also have introduced amendments to rewrite their states' constitutions to protect parent rights. Most use language suggested by Of the People, an Arlington, Va.-based organization founded in 1994, lifted almost verbatim from the U.S. Supreme Court's 1925 ruling in Pierce vs. Society of Sisters. In that case, the high court overruled an Oregon law requiring parents to send their children to public school, saying the statute interfered with parents' fundamental right--implicit in the Constitution's protection of life, liberty, and property--to "direct the upbringing and education'' of their children.
Opponents of parent-rights legislation say the measures are deceivingly simple. "When you first hear the bill's title,'' Sammy Quintana, president-elect of the National School Boards Association, said in testimony against the congressional bill last year, "it makes you want to stand up and hum the 'Star-Spangled Banner.' But when you look into it, it doesn't stand for that at all.'' Quintana and other critics argue that such legislation would give parents absolute authority to meddle in education issues. Could individual parents use the new laws to dictate curriculum? Could they decide graduation requirements? What books students can read? What chapters to study?
Critics also argue that the legislation is superfluous. Parents already control their children's education; they can send them to a public or private school or even choose to homeschool them. If the Supreme Court has already established parents' authority over their children's education, why pass more legislation?
In response, backers of parent-rights bills point to the Earls' case and others like it as proof of the need to codify the Supreme Court's 1925 ruling. High court decisions can be diluted, even overruled. Or they can be ignored. And that, backers of parent-rights bills say, is exactly what school officials are doing today.
'I am a country lawyer,'' Chip Angell told the Senate panel in December, and his testimony that day contained no truer statement. Toccoa, population 15,000, sits in the Blue Ridge Mountains as they finger into Georgia from North Carolina and Tennessee. Various small manufacturers--turning out everything from chemicals to coffins--dot the map and dominate the local economy.
Waymon Earls owns a tow-truck service and junkyard; his wife runs a beauty shop. They have seven children, including Judy and Janie, the teenage girls who join them as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Court documents filed by the Earls say they have tried to create a loving, Christian home with "stern proscriptions against adolescent sex, willful deceit, and reckless defiance of parental authority.'' The Earls have not talked with the media since filing the suit.
Sharon Earls was searching her daughters' room for contraband cigarettes, Angell says, when she found, instead, prescription birth-control pills and colored condoms. Pressed by their mother, Judy and Janie confessed to accompanying the school counselor to the health clinic. Sharon Earls told Angell's wife the story while Sharon was doing her nails one day. She told Sharon that her husband, Chip, might be able to help her. Defeated as a candidate for the school board a few years ago, Chip Angell has had more than one run-in with district officials. "I had had some encounters with the schools before,'' he says, "and the word was out that I didn't mind facing them.''
Angell filed suit against the Stephens County district on behalf of the Earls on June 8. Several school officials were named as defendants, notably superintendent Ed Mills and his wife, Ann, the middle school counselor. The 44-year-old superintendent is a local boy who returned to his hometown after college to teach middle school social studies for nearly 20 years. He was popular with students, Toccoa residents say, and popular enough with voters to win election as county superintendent in 1992. He married Ann in 1975, a year after she moved from Atlanta to Toccoa to become, at age 25, the county's first middle school counselor.
Ed and Ann Mills' life story sounds as wholesome as apple pie. But Angell's fiery criticism of the couple quickly shatters that image. A South Carolina native and graduate of the Citadel, the 44-year-old Angell is an ordained Anglican priest as well as a lawyer. A man of the cloth armed with a law degree, he wields emotion and logic with equal skill to press his argument that the Mills violated the "most Holy of Holies,'' the sanctity of family. School officials and other government actors may be well-intentioned, he says, but they are captives of a liberal political agenda. "They have this fixation on our daughters' wombs; a fixation!'' he declares. "What the hell has that got to do with reading, writing, and arithmetic?''
Joining Angell on the Earls' legal team is Henry Granberry, general counsel for the Southeastern Legal Foundation in Atlanta. An article about the Earls' suit in the Athens Banner-Herald caught the eye of officials at the foundation. "It was a case that we saw immediately as one of parental rights,'' says Matthew Glavin, Southeastern's president. "As a public-interest law firm, we're always looking for areas where the government has overstepped its bounds. When we read this article, it appeared exactly the kind of case that we're always looking for. So we gave Chip a call.''
From their offices on the 25th floor of a high-rise in Atlanta's fashionable Buckhead neighborhood, the foundation's lawyers stand watch over the entire Southeast, a defender of individual economic freedom, private-property rights, and free enterprise against government tyranny. Now 20 years old, the group has recently beefed up its caseload, quadrupled its budget to $1 million, and boosted its profile. When Georgia Trend, a regional business and political magazine, named Southeastern's chairman, Robert Proctor, one of the state's 100 most powerful people last year, Proctor told the magazine he wanted to be known as a "vampire bat,'' not a "legal gadfly.'' A gadfly, he explained, implied someone who could easily be brushed away.
Southeastern lends polish to the homespun Angell, but also expertise. Its lawyers have argued before the Supreme Court--and won, most notably in 1992, when they represented parents who successfully challenged DeKalb County's forced busing of their children to comply with a federal desegregation order. As a public-interest firm, the foundation also fights its battles in the court of public opinion. "When government oversteps its bounds,'' Glavin says, "the public has a right to know about it because it is their government. And the only way it's going to change is if first, they are aware about it and second, if they decide to do something about it and contact their legislators or whatever people who get enraged about an issue do. Unfor-tunately, it's these kinds of cases that get the blood boiling in millions of Americans.''
On June 29, Glavin issued a press release on the Earls' case to several hundred media outlets under a headline announcing the foundation's involvement. The release's subhead: "School District Says to Parents . . . 'It's None of Your Business.' '' On July 10, Glavin issued a "fact sheet'' on the case that said, "The primary issue of the lawsuit is: Whose kids are these, anyway?''
Five days later, a commentary critical of Stephens County school officials ran in The Atlanta Constitution under the headline: "Whose children are these, anyway?'' A story about the lawsuit followed in the paper's news pages, as well as an editorial that flatly concluded: "The counselor overstepped her bounds.''
When leaders of the Georgia chapter of the Christian Coalition announced their 1996 legislative agenda in January, they named parent rights a top priority. Coalition officials had heard stories from many "pro family'' organizations--including the Southeastern Legal Foundation--suggesting that public agencies were trampling those rights statewide. Of all those stories, the Earls' suit makes most clear the need for legislation, says coalition executive director Jack Gibbs. It not only embodies the problem of government intrusion into the family, he argues, "but also the attitude of government workers in schools and clinics throughout the country, which is: They really know better how to raise children, and they can do better than families.''
The coalition wields considerable clout in the state. Leaders of the national coalition consider the Georgia chapter's grass-roots operation one of its best. In the 1994 elections, the group distributed 1.7 million legislative "score cards'' that detailed candidates' positions--yes or no--on the group's key issues. This year, it aims to distribute 2.5 million.
Even before its press conference, the coalition's political might had advanced the cause of parents' rights. State Sen. Richard Marable, chairman of the Senate education committee, held a hearing in November on the proposed amendment to the state constitution. While not inclined to support the amendment, he explained later that he wanted to give a fair hearing to parent-rights issues--and a bill that he expects will get prominent billing on the coalition's legislative score card.
"When that score card comes out, there will be a single question: 'For parents' rights or against parents' rights,' '' he says. "It will say, 'Does not support parents' rights' if you're opposed to a particular piece of legislation--even if you're for parents' rights in general. So I think you want to look at it very closely.' ''
Around 10 a.m., on Dec. 5, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley brought the gavel down on a Senate subcommittee hearing on the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act, legislation he introduced with Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla., to reaffirm the right of parents to direct their children's health, education, discipline, and religious training. Sitting at the center of the committee room's horseshoe-shaped table, the 62-year-old Iowa Republican looked every bit the veteran politician. Wearing a dark suit with a maroon tie and matching handkerchief peeking from his jacket pocket, he studied papers soberly through silver-framed glasses.
An elected official for more than 35 years, with 20 years' experience in the ways of Capitol Hill, the senator knows the value of a good story in politics. He helped uncover--and publicize--many of the tales of ludicrous military spending--$999 for a pair of pliers, $1,868 for a toilet-seat cover, and $7,600 for a coffee maker--that made the Pentagon the butt of jokes in the late 1980s and early '90s. "No sweeping congressional investigation followed, but Grassley got his headlines,'' his biography in Congressional Quarterly's Politics in America reads.
At the start of the hearing, Grassley assured the packed committee room and the C-SPAN TV audience that parent rights are "under attack in American society . . . and we have a lot of people present today who have experienced this.''
Among those testifying was Chip Angell. By now, news of the Earls' suit had reached points thousands of miles from Toccoa. The Washington Times and The Arizona Republic had both picked up the story, and many pro-family Christian organizations such as the Colorado-based Focus on the Family had spread the word through their publications. Glavin, meanwhile, had given dozens of interviews on radio talk shows.
Angell, a stocky man with short, curly gray hair, dressed for the day in a plain gray suit close in color and cut to those dozens of other lawyers wear on any given day on the Hill. Indeed, for his testimony, he had prepared an elegant statement outlining the legal and political rationale for parent-rights legislation, quoting such legal luminaries as John Locke, James Madison, and retired Associate Justice Harry Blackmun of the U.S. Supreme Court. But when his time came to speak, Angell ditched the statement and spoke off the cuff, taking his cue, he would joke later, from Sen. Sam Ervin Jr., the North Carolina Democrat who chaired the Senate panel investigating Watergate. Ervin was legendary for his down-home cross-examinations.
Using the story of the Earls as a parable about government's threat to average Americans, Angell told senators about the phone call from Sharon Earls and the tears of Waymon Earls. "Now, senators, this kind of stuff scares me as an American citizen. Seems like we've heard this kind of stuff before in history, I believe, in the '30s in Europe. It's upon us.''
Calls to his office from others victimized by government indicated that this was not an isolated incident, Angell told the committee. "It's happening in the rural Bible Belt, it's happening in the South, and it's probably happened out West,'' he said. "We ought not to have to pass this law. . . . If these rights and this erosion of the family and intrusion into the family weren't taking place, we wouldn't need to do this. The fact of the matter is, in the real world, they are.''
Others testifying that day presented a similar picture of America's families under siege. Rep. Largent reported that violations of parent rights are happening "across the country, North and South, East and West.'' He told of reading in USA Today about a North Carolina county that had passed a law mandating bedtimes for children, meaning, he said, that parents "could actually be taken to court, thrown in jail, because their kids exceeded the bedtime limit.''
Testimony at an Oct. 23 hearing on parent-rights legislation in the Georgia House featured equally incredible stories. No official record was kept, but a transcript was compiled from an audio recording made by one of the bill's backers--a transcript now circulating among legislators. Some 25 parents spoke at the hearing, and many told hair-raising stories that seemed to suggest that school authorities had taken leave of their senses. By their accounts, educators duped parents, lied to them, and experimented with children without their parents' consent.
At least two parents said schools were hypnotizing children. One woman from Cave Springs in Floyd County said schools there regularly probed children's subconsciousness. She told a story related by Amber, a friend of her daughter's, about a science teacher's post-exam relaxation methods: "Amber stated that everyone around her was completely out of it, that altered state of consciousness. . . . Also, levitation was practiced in Amber's science class. Classmates actually lifted the students, four students, two here and two here, and they lifted their fellow students off the floor through levitation.''
According to another parent, 5th graders in Lee County were shown a movie called "Good Touch, Bad Touch,'' in which a grandfather is shown molesting his granddaughter, homosexuals are depicted holding hands, and another man pulls down his pants to flash. "If something isn't done,'' the woman said, "our lawmakers won't have to worry about an economic revolution, Republican revolution, or tax revolt. The next revolution may be a parents' revolution!''
To parent-rights supporters the equation is simple: Horror stories like those recounted during Grassley's Senate hearing constitute the problem; legislation is the solution.
What's missing from this equation, however, is what conservative radio commentator Paul Harvey calls "the rest of the story.'' While legislative hearings routinely feature critics of bills, no defense was offered for the public officials accused of violating parents' rights in either the Georgia or U.S. Senate hearings. Charges were leveled against them, entered into the public record, and often repeated in the media. The Grassley hearing, for example, was broadcast three times in December on C-SPAN, a cable network that reaches 65 million homes. At no time in the legislative process, however, did school authorities or other officials have a chance to counter, explain, or deny the accusations. Without their voices, did policymakers hear the truth?
Consider Rep. Largent's tale at the Grassley hearings about mandated bedtimes. Largent cites as his source USA Today, but that newspaper ran only a 90-word squib on new "parenting standards'' in Durham, N.C. The story said nothing about a new law, nothing about locking parents in jail. Durham officials say they were besieged with calls from other media soon after the item appeared. Most reporters backed off, however, when they discovered that the county had only issued guidelines for social workers, teachers, and others who might be confronted with cases of child abuse. The "mandated bedtimes'' Largent cited were actually suggested cutoff hours for young baby sitters. "It sounds like Congressman Largent did not take the time to call Durham County and ask for a copy of the standards,'' says MaryAnn Black, a county commissioner.
Or take the tale of hypnotism and levitation told by the Cave Springs woman. It may be true, but school officials in Floyd County flatly deny it. The woman who testified, according to Wayne Huntley, the district's associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, frequently complains about district practices. "She has been invited to bring specifics to our attention on many occasions,'' he says, "and she has never been able to do so.''
Finally, consider the Lee County parent's story about a video showing child molestation, homosexuality, and the flasher. School officials say the tape was approved--and endorsed--by a screening committee that included community members, one of them a Baptist minister. The film as it was described in legislative testimony misinterpreted it slightly, says Wendy Martin, chairwoman of the county school board. The two "homosexuals,'' for example, were a boy and a girl with short hair. Still, Martin says the district's response to this one woman's complaints makes it clear that a state law is not needed. The school showed the film only once, she says. As soon as the complaint was made, "it was gone. We've never shown it again.''
In the Toccoa case, telling the other side of the story is not easy, since the district's lawyers can say little. They have admitted in court that Ann Mills drove each of the girls separately to the clinic. But they deny that Mills or any other school officials suggested the trip or encouraged the girls to get contraceptives. "The school system's counselors approach every situation such as this by strongly encouraging students involved to discuss the matter with parents first,'' says Phillip Hartley, one of the district's lawyers. "If not parents, then other family members, clergy, or other people whom they might have trust and confidence in. To the extent that there is ever any counseling with regard to sexual activity outside of marriage, the school system's position--the counselor's position--is that students ought to abstain from sexual activity.''
On rare occasions, Hart-ley continues, school officials are privy to information that compels them to put students in touch with other state agencies. "And in doing so,'' he says, "notifying parents might well violate the student's rights. That is always a difficult call; it is a call that school officials always try to err on the side of the best interests of the student and the best interests of the parents. But occasionally, that's the call that has to be made.''
Hartley will say little else. He cites the federal 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also known as the Buckley Amendment, which protects the privacy rights of students. Because of this law, Hartley says, Stephens County is handcuffed when it tries to defend itself in the court of public opinion.
Superintendent Ed Mills did talk to local newspapers when the suit was first filed, and his comments generally echoed Hartley's. He told the Athens Banner-Herald that no policies or laws were violated. "Schools are now taking over responsibilities that aren't being covered in the home,'' he said. "When parents won't do it, we have to.''
"There's a lot more to this than people know,'' he told the Chieftain and Toccoa Record. "Unfortunately, I can't really say too much about it at this point. But there's definitely more to this case than what people have heard so far.''
Angell and Southeastern Legal Foundation officials dismiss such talk and say the district is wrapping its defense in mystery because it knowingly violated the law. Others, though, are not willing to accept the allegations against the school district at face value. Kay Pippin, legislative director of the Georgia Association of Educators, the state's largest teachers' union and an opponent of the parent-rights bill, says she heard the Earls' story for the first time when she testified at the state Senate hearing. "I didn't know anything about the Stephens County case, and I didn't know school officials there,'' she says. "But when I finished my testimony on the bill, I told committee members that they had heard only one side of the story.''
In Toccoa itself, Patrick Neal, editor of the Chieftain, says community outrage about the case has been tempered by the widespread feeling that there was more to it. "Even among the reporters covering the story,'' he says, "it was frustrating that there was something out there that we couldn't get at.''
Whatever the truth of the Earls' allegations, they have damaged the public's trust in school officials--particularly Ed and Ann Mills--and the system itself. "I have always felt that my children were safe attending school here,'' one parent wrote the Chieftain, "but I don't feel that way anymore.''
The Earls' legal team isn't fretting over the harm that results from broadcasting their allegations around the country, telling only one side of the story. "There seems to be a concern that agencies of government are entitled to the same rights of due process as citizens,'' says South-eastern's Henry Granberry. "And that's just not true. The Constitution was created to protect citizens from government. And I don't have a lot of patience for people who talk about agencies being railroaded and defamed and libeled. That's the government. The Constitution's protecting me from them.''
As for the Stephens County schools? "I'm not concerned about whether or not these people get a black eye politically,'' Granberry says. "The framers [of the Constitution] created the system that permitted that to happen.''
It may take years for the courts to vindicate the Stephens County schools or determine their guilt. Last month, the judge handling the case agreed with a Stephens County petition that Judy and Janie, the Earls' daughters, should have legal counsel in the case separate from their parents. "Although the court . . . did not want to interfere with the parent-child relationship,'' the judge wrote in his ruling, "there appears to be at least a potential conflict'' in having a single lawyer represent both the Earls and their daughters.
Neither girl attends the Stephens County schools today. Angell says Janie is homeschooled, and Judy, the younger girl, is enrolled at a South Carolina boarding school run by the Daughters of the American Revolution. The Earls' three other school-age children, however, still go to county schools.
Will the Earls' story move lawmakers to support parent-rights bills? It's possible the horror stories will have little influence on the legislative process. Angell argues correctly that serious deliberation by lawmakers generally takes place behind closed doors. Public hearings like Grassley's are often little more than a political performance scripted to get press and public support.
"I knew I was a bumpkin,'' Angell says of his Capitol Hill appearance. (Others testifying that day included constitutional scholars, nationally known psychologists, and top officials of prestigious associations.) "I didn't get in there and read my statement, because I was the color commentator. And I knew that's what my role was.''
The fate of congressional parent-rights legislation rests largely with Republican Party leaders. Some Capitol Hill watchers speculate the GOP will push social legislation--including Grassley's bill--during this, an election year. But others believe the party will stick to bread-and-butter economic issues. In Atlanta, the political forecast is also mixed.
Still, Angell thinks it's possible that lawmakers will pass a parent-rights law before he can stand before the Supreme Court and once again tell the Earls' story. Such a law would probably make his case moot. "I feel, honestly, like I've won,'' he says. "Even if we lose the case, I've won. I've rung that bell, and you can't unring that bell. I've won.''