Court Sends Girl to Public School Against Parents' Wishes
A legal battle in Virginia is pitting a teenager's wish to attend public high school against her parents' desire that she be educated at home.
In what home schooling advocates call an unprecedented intrusion on parental rights, a juvenile-court judge ruled that it was in the best interest of 16-year-old Jennifer Sengpiehl of Round Hill, Va., to allow her to attend her local public high school this fall.
The girl had been educated at home and at a private religious boarding school. Her parents, Donald and Maureen Sengpiehl, have said they preferred to educate the rest of their eight children at home after they were unhappy with their eldest son's experience at Loudoun Valley High School.
The matter apparently ended up in juvenile court because the Sengpiehls wanted to shock their daughter out of a pattern of misbehavior. They reportedly called the police after an incident in May in which Jennifer brandished a penknife against her father.
A guardian appointed for Jennifer by a juvenile-court judge recommended that she be allowed to go to public school. Judge Burke McCahill of Loudoun County juvenile court went along with the recommendation in July.
"The reason Jennifer behaved badly was because of a dispute with her parents about where she was going to go to school," said Michael Farris, the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association.
"What the juvenile-court judge did was basically reward her bad behavior by giving her exactly what she wanted," added Mr. Farris, whose Purcellville, Va.-based organization is representing the parents.
Judge McCahill's ruling has been appealed to a Loudoun County circuit court judge. A hearing is set for Dec. 7.
Mr. Farris said he was unaware of any other case in which a child was allowed to attend public school against the wishes of both parents.
"This was absolutely without precedent," he said. "Absent a finding that parents have abused or neglected their authority, they retain the right to decide how their children are educated."
However, Pamela Grizzle, Jennifer Sengpiehl's court-appointed guardian, said: "This case is not about home schooling. It's about one child and what is best for one child. There are times when the child's rights and interests are paramount, even over those of the parents."
Mr. Farris said legal disputes over home schooling sometimes arise in divorce and child-custody cases.
"But in that circumstance, the family unit is broken," he said. "But when there is no finding that anyone has done anything wrong, that's different. Juvenile judges are not authorized to substitute their wisdom for the wisdom of parents."
The state of the law on home schooling and parents' right to direct their children's upbringing is somewhat unsettled. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling most similar to the Virginia case was its 1972 ruling that the state of Wisconsin could not require Amish children to attend school past the age of 16 because of their parents' religious beliefs.
In a dissent to the ruling in Wisconsin v. Yoder, Justice William O. Douglas expressed sympathy with a hypothetical Amish child who "may want to be a pianist or an astronaut or an oceanographer" against the religious wishes of his parents.
"I think the children should be entitled to be heard," Justice Douglas wrote.
Neither side is willing to discuss the factual details of the Virginia case any longer because the parties say some local newspaper accounts have gotten some facts wrong.
But in one newspaper story that Ms. Grizzle said was accurate, Jennifer said she wanted to attend her public high school in part to take the science classes she would need for her plans to attend medical school. She also expressed a desire for greater social interaction with other teenagers.
"Home school prepares you to be a homemaker, cooking and taking care of babies," she told the Loudoun Times-Mirror, a weekly newspaper serving Loudoun County, which is a distant suburb of Washington. Jennifer has continued to live at home since the dispute began.
Maureen Sengpiehl told the newspaper that she regretted calling in the police to deal with her daughter's misbehavior.
"Jennifer is not a juvenile delinquent," she told the Times-Mirror. "We want to do what is best for Jennifer, but on our terms, not what a judge feels."
Vol. 18, Issue 13, Page 6Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Court Sends Girl to Public School Against Parents' Wishes