The Old Schoolhouse: The New Homeschool Scandal

The Old Schoolhouse: The New Homeschool Scandal October 9, 2014

Right now my heart feels heavy. There are some days when I wonder if the world can actually be a good and happy place. I’ve written before about scandals in the Christian homeschooling movement and I’ve talked about the homeschool alumni reform movement of which I am a part. But some days, I just don’t think it can get any worse.

If you are a regular here, the name of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) is familiar to you, and that of Heidi St. John, one of the most popular speakers on the Great Homeschool Conventions circuit, may be familiar as well. Both HSLDA and Heidi St. John have given lip service to the importance of protecting homeschooled children from abuse. A couple of months ago, HSLDA even published an article on how to guard against sexual abuse that was written by someone with experience in the field and was actually pretty decent. But what I’ve learned today makes me despair.

You can read the full story, When Homeschool Leaders Looked Away: The Old Schoolhouse Coverup, at Homeschoolers Anonymous, though I’ll summarize it below. What is so horrifying about this story is that it reveals that the very people promising sweetly that they will self police the homeschool community—that they care—have in fact been actively or passively involved in covering up child abuse—and child sexual abuse. In other words, they’re not just saying words they’re not backing up, they’re saying words they’re actively working against. They’re not just not protecting children, they’re actively putting them at risk. This is completely atrocious. I don’t even have words for this. This is appalling. This is beyond the pale. I am a homeschool alumna, and I don’t think I found either the Doug Phillips scandal or the Bill Gothard scandal this horrifying—perhaps because this one implicates so many more. Today, I am heartsick.

The Old Schoolhouse magazine, run by Paul and Gena Suarez, has long been a prominent publication in Christian homeschooling circles. It has now come out that the Suarezes abused their children and Gena’s younger sister, who came to live with them at age 14 after their parents died (this abuse included what is generally referred to as “waterboarding”); covered up their son’s sexual abuse of his younger siblings and cousin (and potentially more children as well—their now-young-adult son still travels with them to homeschool conventions and is put up by homeschool families, often staying in bedrooms with the younger children); welcomed Mike Marcum, the son of a close family associate, into their community even though they knew was being investigated on child pornography charges (and became angry when another family found out and notified other families); and defended a fellow church member against allegations or sexual abuse because kids “make stuff up all the time” (the man, Roy Ballard, was later put in prison for crimes against his own children).

In other words, not only are Paul and Gena Suarez child abusers, they have also defended or covered for sexual abusers or potential sexual abusers not once, not twice, but three times—that we know of, at least. They have blamed victims, bullied those who try to speak out, and given abusers the space and secrecy they need to abuse again. Gena’s sister Jenefer Igarashi, along with her husband Geoff Igarashi, tried in 2007 to bring some form of change or accountability to the Suarez family. Yet in spite of initially promising to turn over the reigns of leadership at The Old Schoolhouse to others, the Suarezes ultimately did nothing and instead shunned the Igarashis, creating a rift in their extended family to this day. 

Earlier this year, Jenefer Igarashi found out about the Suarezes shielding of Mike Marcum and Roy Ballard and decided they needed to try again to do something about the Suarezes. They contacted the Suarezes and Heidi St. John, a leading speaker at Great Homeschool Conventions, where the Suarezes frequently present, and Mike Smith, current president of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). Somehow I managed to read through everything the Suarezes did and covered up without being completely overcome—it was one family, after all, one family defended, perhaps, by whatever church they happened to attend but no one else. But when I read past this point, I lost my calm completely.

The Igarashis sent a draft of the letter to the Suarezes on April 4. A copy of the letter was also sent to Heidi St. John, one of the most popular speakers for the Great Homeschool Conventions and a longtime family friend of both the Suarezes and Igarashis. . . .

Jenefer also decided to contact two other friends: Anne Miller, President of the Home Educators Association of Virginia, and HSLDA President Michael Smith. Jenefer called Smith on his personal mobile phone 3 times as well as emailed him with her plea for help.

An excerpt from her April 8, 2014 email to HSLDA’s Smith reads as follows:

It’s been a while since we’ve talked.

My husband asked me to email you. I don’t know if you remember that Gena Suarez.(The Old Schoolhouse Magazine) is my sister. We had a (very) difficult split 7 years ago.

Last month we put together another effort to call them to repentance. 20 people have given testimony against them (including [name redacted], [name redacted], [name redacted], and others)

The document we’ve sent them has been ignored.

…we were told that *morally* we had some decisions to make since we know there have been recent cover ups (dealing with convicted sex offenders — Suarez’s pushing to allow access within family settings and bullying people who spoke out). I have testimony and direct proof of this. The men are listed on sex crime registers. Both men were convicted of crimes against children. This is in addition to their son (a highschooler at the time) who repeatedly victimized our little son.We are trying to make a decision whether or not to let convention leaders know about this issue.

The [name redacted]/Teach Them Diligently are our friends and know about this issue and so does [name redacted] (also our friend), who helps run CHEA of California. But as of yet, we’ve not informed anybody else.

My husband asked me earlier today if I would contact you and ask your advice. HSLDA has been the watchdog/protectors of the homeschool movement since the early 80s. You all have not only protected legitimate homeschoolers but have made sure the Homeschool Community (at large) was not used as a haven for abusers.

We really are not sure what should be done in this case. On one hand we are nervous about knowing about their patterns/ keeping children safe, but on the other hand we are talking about my sister who I love. After the Doug Phillips tragedy I feel like the homeschool movement could be damaged with another high profile scandal. This is a horrible position any way you look at it. I know you are a very busy man, but any light you could shed on this would be very appreciated.

Mike Smith never responded to any of Jenefer’s pleas.

The Old Schoolhouse remains an HSLDA-suggested resource promoted to HSLDA members at a special discounted rate.

. . .

The joint letter the Igarashis sent to the Suarezes (and copied to Heidi St. John) on April 4 was not received well. According to Novak, the Suarezes “ignored both the letter that had been crafted by the individuals (list of 20) and also Jenefer’s pleas to her sister to work with her”.

Heidi St. John, however, was dismayed by the fact that Jenefer involved her in the situation. St. John sent a number of emails to Jenefer in response. In one of those emails, St. John wrote, “This is a huge distraction for us in the middle of the busiest season of the year. We have neither the time nor desire to be part of it”. St. John also told Jenefer that she had talked to HSLDA’s Michael Smith and Smith told her that, “HSLDA will not be getting involved in it.”

At this point I’m having troubles typing, I’m so angry. These are people who have claimed to care. They have claimed that they believe in protecting homeschooled children from abuse—especially sexual abuse. That these people could be complicity in a coverup of this magnitude is absolutely atrocious. Call me an idealist, but I had hoped that individuals like these could at least go a small way in calling for abuse to be dealt with when seen rather than covered up. Yes, I knew they were against outside oversight and accountability, but I thought they might be persuaded to at least do something. But no. And I am angry. I am enraged.

I am a homeschool alumna. It could have been my family the Suarezes boarded with, it could have been my family that unknowingly welcomed a sexual predator because people like the Suarezes hid what they knew. It could have been me—or one of my siblings. And it actually is children like me, children trusting like I was, children who deserve better. These are real children we’re talking about here, not hypotheticals. And these are my people.

To date, the Suarezes and The Old Schoolhouse have not responded to these allegations with a public statement. Rather, as reported on Homeschoolers Anonymous on July 2, 2014, TOS has been stating privately—via emails—that all of these allegations are false. “TOS and the Suarez family are aware of the allegations circulating online”, TOS declared. “They are false”.

In light of the fact that the authors have emails on file from the Suarezes themselves admitting several of the allegations are true, these current statements by TOS appear intentionally and maliciously false. Even more disturbing is the revelation—again, verifiable—that some of the biggest names in Christian homeschooling (HSLDA’s Mike Smith, GHC’s Brennan Dean, GHC’s Heidi St. John, and NCLL’s Dave Gibbs III) have known about both the child abuse allegations and the alleged cover-up of the abuse for substantial periods of time and have chosen to ignore it, remain silent, or bully others into silence.

This might be the most widespread, institutional cover-up of child and sexual abuse allegations among homeschool leaders and communities to date.

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