Student Well-Being

Polygamy Case Raises Complex Schooling Issues

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 22, 2008 6 min read
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The transfer of children from a polygamist group’s compound to state care in Texas has handed officials there the challenges of providing for their education.

Several days after 416 children were removed from the secluded ranch compound of a religious group in Eldorado, Texas, early this month, administrators of the 14,500-student San Angelo Independent School District organized the delivery of four truckloads of school supplies and textbooks to shelters where the children were staying in San Angelo.

And last week, teachers from the district began teaching art, math, and physical education to the children from the ranch who are now in state custody.

Thus began an effort by Texas officials to ensure that children removed from the Yearning for Zion ranch, run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS, will receive schooling while their legal status is being worked out. It remained unclear late last week how long the children, removed from the ranch in the wake of abuse allegations, will be wards of Texas or how long state officials will be responsible for their schooling. It was also not clear how long Texas District Judge Barbara Walthers, who is presiding over the case in state court, will recommend they stay in shelters in San Angelo.

For Texas officials and district-level educators involved in the care of children, working with FLDS families poses a new challenge.

The sect is separate from the Mormon church, which rejects the practice of polygamy and doesn’t endorse the FLDS.

In Arizona and Utah, where thousands of FLDS members live, a number of educators have experience with the group. They note that when church members moved to the ranch in Texas four years ago, they came from the FLDS communities of St. George and Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.

Shannon Price, the director of The Diversity Foundation, an organization in South Jordan, Utah, that meets education, housing, and other basic needs of people who have left the FLDS, said the quality of education received by FLDS children has deteriorated greatly in the past 10 years, after leaders of the religious group stopped supporting public schools.

The Diversity Foundation helps run a group house in St. George for 10 teenagers who left the FLDS and are attending Washington County, Utah, public schools or pursuing General Educational Development credentials.

“The younger they are, the less education they are going to have,” Ms. Price said of FLDS children. “They went from being in a traditional school, to being taught within the private sector, to being home-schooled.”

The Yearning for Zion ranch is located within the 650-student Schleicher County school district in Texas, and a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency said FLDS leaders had sent a letter to that district, to comply with Texas law, spelling out their intent to homeschool their children.

But most people familiar with the FLDS suspect the children from the ranch have received little instruction.

Joni Holm, who lives in Sandy, Utah, is married to a former member of the FLDS and has taken in several youths who left the FLDS in Arizona and Utah. Five years ago, she said, she took in two 16-year-old girls who lagged six or seven grades behind their peers in the local public schools.

Ms. Holm said that many adults from the FLDS have only an 8th grade education. “When you have mamas at the 8th grade level doing home schooling, that really puts the children behind,” she said.

Action Questioned

Not everyone thinks Texas officials have done the right thing to remove the children from the ranch and put them in the care of state family-protection services.

The children were taken away from the compound—though mothers have been permitted to stay with children age 5 or younger—on April 4 after a domestic-violence shelter had received calls from a 16-year-old from the ranch. The teenager said she’d been sexually and physically abused by a man more than 30 years her senior whom she called her husband, according to the family-protection agency.

Fawneta B. Caroll, an assistant principal at El Capitan School in Colorado City—who said she was once a member of the FLDS but parted ways with the group two decades ago—said Texas officials should let the children stay with their families at the compound and investigate possible child abuse on site, on a case-by-case basis.

Ms. Caroll said she was particularly disturbed about the handling of the Texas case because she herself was separated from family members when she was 7 years old in 1953 after a raid on FLDS homes in Colorado City, then called Spring Creek, and neighboring Hildale.

Then, Arizona state officials accused church members of “abuse and neglect” of children, she said, similar to accusations that Texas officials are making now. While she’s against the Texas group’s practice of underage marriage, she said, she recognizes family closeness is an important value of the group and believes it should be respected in the current situation.

Ms. Caroll, now in her early 60s, said she was among the hundreds of FLDS children who became wards of the state for two years after the 1953 raid, though birth mothers were permitted to stay with their children.

She, her birth mother, and her three younger sisters first lived with a family for eight months, arranged by state officials. They moved several times before returning to the FLDS in Colorado City, after church families regained custody of the children, she said. She attended various public schools during those two years.

Now, as a longtime educator in the Colorado City schools, which have 450 students, Ms. Caroll helps ease the transition to public schools for teenagers who have left the FLDS. El Capitan, a public high school with 183 students, has six such students, she said.

Many residents of Colorado City are members of the FLDS. According to Ms. Caroll, the education level of children from the group varies widely. The church pulled members’ children out of Colorado City public schools in 2000. (“Student Exodus Hits Schools in 2 Towns,” Sept. 13, 2000.)

Ms. Caroll said that at the same time, teachers who were church members left their jobs in the schools but continued to use their skills in the group. Some FLDS children have received a good education, she said.

Legal Limbo

In Texas, the legal situation of the children in state care is likely to remain murky for some time.

Chris Van Deusen, a public-information officer for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said last week that his agency was waiting for instruction from a judge on next steps, such as whether to move children into foster care. The first custody hearing started April 17.

Susan Hays, a lawyer representing a 2-year-old girl in the case, said before that hearing: “I hope we can come up with a resolution where these children can be safe and happy. It’s difficult when you have a case this large.”

Meanwhile, Carol Ann Bonds, the superintendent of the San Angelo school system, has gotten a crash course in the beliefs and practices of FLDS members.

“A natural mother may not be able to make decisions for her child,” she said in an interview last week, listing examples of what she had been told about the group. “Women travel in a group.”

In the view of church members, she said, “other religions and ‘Gentiles’ are doing Satan’s work.” In dealing with church members, she said, “we’re told not to ask about religion, not to criticize them or their religion, not to press if they avoid eye contact.”

Teachers from her district engaged mothers and young children in experimenting with Play-Doh, tempera paints, glitter, and other materials last week, Ms. Bonds said. But she said that many of the older children were focused on their concern about the court hearing and didn’t want to participate. She said they were sitting around tables and talking.

“It’s pretty emotional. We all need to debrief when we come out [of the shelters] because they are aware the court hearing is going on today,” she reported on April 17.

“They talk to you about it. [The mothers] are scared they are going to lose their children. All we can do is just listen because we’re not asking questions.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2008 edition of Education Week as Polygamy Case Raises Complex Schooling Issues

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