Justice-Free Zones?

Home schools could make drug prosecution yet more draconian.


First, the good news: House and Senate negotiators, now hammering out education-reform legislation, are clarifying a troubling legal ambiguity regarding gun laws and home schools, one that could land gun owners in big trouble if any of their neighbors are home schoolers. The bad news: a similar ambiguity involves drug laws and home schooling, and there do not appear to be any efforts to address it.

The gun-ownership problem stems from the federal Gun-Free Schools Amendment. Passed in 1996, the law requires substantial penalties for anyone who brings a firearm within 1,000 feet of a public or private school. The problem, according to the Tom Washburne, director of the National Center for Home Education, is that 13 states consider home schools to be "private schools." So if Johnny learns at home, will the deer rifle in the closet land the family in trouble with the law? After a few years of scrutiny by groups such as NCHE, the short answer appears to be "no," but the conference committee is not satisfied. The proposed changes will spell it out in black and white. "It's just a clarification," a staffer on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce told me in a phone interview Wednesday. "No one is being prosecuted for it right now."

But this legislative clarification, described in a November 6 press release from the House committee, said nothing about drugs. There is a labyrinth of state and federal laws restricting drugs in and around schools, and they pose the same intriguing question arising from the gun law: Do they apply to home schools?

Why does it matter? There are 850,000 home-schooled children in America. If the parents or siblings of any of these children sneak a few bong hits while the kids are away at camp, they may be liable under the same laws intended for playground drug pushers.

These laws may even apply to neighbors. Let's say you live within 1,000 feet of a home-schooling family. If you get busted with some pot you could be in for a longer trip up the river than you imagined. Similarly, what happens to the unfortunate stoner, pulled over for speeding in an unfamiliar residential neighborhood, when the local constable finds his stash? If it's anywhere near a home school, things could get ugly.

While most of the laws apply to drug distribution instead of simple possession, those definitions vary widely in different jurisdictions. There is a question of notice. Many school districts post signs letting potential dealers know about the stricter enforcement. Would the harsher penalties apply to home-school zones if they didn't post similar warnings? Ask around. I wish you luck. Nobody in the enforcement or reform communities has been able to give me a definitive answer. I asked staffers from the House committee to address some of these issues a week ago, and they haven't been able to do come up with any answers.

So far, no prosecutors have attempted to apply drug-free restrictions to home schools, but anyone relying on continued government restraint needs a lesson in drug-war politics. Drug-free school zones have already resulted in embarrassing "zero-tolerance" gaffes in school districts around the country. Every few weeks a pious principal expels a pre-teen for slipping an aspirin to an ailing classmate. Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation—a D.C. based institution—says cops have already shown similarly questionable judgment: "Law enforcement authorities have made busts using drug-free school zone authority along interstate highways. They would stop people and the school is sort of across the highway but is within the 1,000 feet. It occurs to me that in jurisdictions where you have that unusual definition of 'private school' that federal agents might very well use the statute to prosecute and get much longer sentences, or to coerce plea bargains from people by threatening very long sentences."

Again, nobody has done that yet, but nobody has been prosecuted for a gun violation with regard to home schools, either. The powers that be seem eager to clarify that language. Why the different treatment for drug zones?

It's certainly not because they keep Junior safe. So says a study released this July by Boston-based Join Together, a public-health non-profit that explored how these laws have worked so far in Massachusetts. Will Brownsberger, Join Together's criminal justice advisor, concluded that "the school zone statute does not make the areas around schools particularly safe for children, nor can it reasonably be expected to do so." It's hard to imagine that similar restrictions around home schools would be much more effective. It's even harder to imagine a politician stepping forward to make sure that doesn't happen.