The Singer-Swapp standoff was a benchmark event for home schooling in Utah. It became very clear. I don't think educational officials or anyone working on a truancy issue ever wanted to be put in a position again of having deaths occur because a child was not coming to school. —Karen Sterling, director of student advocacy and access for the Canyons School District
SALT LAKE CITY — Thirty years ago, a father decided to remove his children from Utah public schools.
Initially, the family agreed to educational testing, monitoring and evaluation of their school-age children. Two years later, John Singer refused further testing of the children, resulting in a bitter legal battle over the issue of educational neglect.
That decision set in motion a series of events — including the bombing of the Kamas LDS Stake Center by Addam Swapp — which culminated with the siege at the Singer-Swapp farm in Marion, ending on Jan. 28, 1988, with the fatal shooting death of Utah Department of Corrections Lt. Fred House.
Nine years earlier, John Singer was shot to death following a stand-off with law enforcement officers. Family members claimed the bombing was intended to provoke a violent confrontation that would lead to John Singer's resurrection, according to Deseret News archives. This past week, Swapp was released from custody after serving more than 24 years in state and federal prisons for convictions related to the bombing.
While the educational neglect issue became a footnote in the saga, the events became a bright line in the public policy debate whether the state or families had the responsibility for educating children.
“The Singer-Swapp standoff was a benchmark event for home schooling in Utah. It became very clear. I don’t think educational officials or anyone working on a truancy issue ever wanted to be put in a position again of having deaths occur because a child was not coming to school,” said Karen Sterling, director of student advocacy and access for the Canyons School District.
Fifteen years after the siege at Marion, public policy and practice regarding parents who elect to educate their children at home have undergone a significant sea change.
Instead of policing suspected educational neglect, public schools have become a resource for home school families.
State law allows children to be dual enrolled, meaning they can take classes in their neighborhood public schools. They also can take part in extracurricular activities.
The Utah State Office of Education offers the Utah Electronic High School as a resource.
Other education options have evolved over the same time period — public charter schools as well a larger array of private schools.
“I think there also been a broadening of horizons that there are many ways that children can be educated and I think a growing respect for allowing all those different options. It used to be, the only game in town was the public schools," said Sterling.
Debbie Mylar of Cottonwood Heights said she first became aware of home schooling as she followed news reports about the Singer-Swapp ordeal.
"Based on that, I thought, 'People who home schooled were really weird. I don't want to home school. You have to be extreme to home school,'" she said.
"Then, God called us to be home schoolers. This will be my 17th year," the mother of five said in an interview Friday.
Over the years, societal attitudes toward home education have significantly evolved as more people have accepted it as a legitimate educational choice, she said.
Mylar and her husband, Frank, have developed networks and the know-how to tailor educational experiences for each of their five children.
While some home educators assume sole responsibility for teaching their children, the Mylars are part of a network of Christian home school families that have formed a cooperative. As many as 100 children have attended classes in a church building, with parents with particular expertise sharing the teaching duties. Sometimes, parents pitch in to hire certified teachers to provide the instruction.
Frank Mylar, for instance, is an attorney. He has taught government classes to children in the co-op. Debbie worked as a physical therapist before the couple decided to home school when their eldest daughter Jessica was three years old.
In their children's elementary school years, the children have primarily been educated by their parents. While their kitchen serves as their primary classroom, the Mylars have conducted school on the road during family vacations or during travel to their father's legal conferences.
Real world experiences
When Mylar ran for the Republican nomination for Utah Attorney General in 2000, the family traveled to county conventions in a motor home. "We attended conventions at night and home schooled during the day," Debbie Mylar said.
Running a campaign was an extension of the Mylar children's education, their father said. "They were hearing debates, reading campaign literature and learning about politics in an up close way," he said.
The Mylars' children take standardized achievement tests administered by a proctor so the couple knows how they are faring in their education if there are subject areas that require more attention.
Because home school operates on the Mylars' schedule, the family has more flexibility for doctor appointments, sports leagues or music lessons. This spring, the couple adopted a son from the Ukraine. Vitalik, 14, needs extra help in mastering English, Debbie Mylar said. Home school makes that possible, she said.
The couple's eldest children have attended high school at Intermountain Christian School, a tradition that started at the request of their eldest child.
Attending college is a priority for the family. Moving from a home-schooled environment to a college campus would have been "big jump," Debbie Mylar said. "This way, it's a natural progression."
Since graduating from ICS, the Mylars' eldest children have each attended college out of state, their eldest daughter graduating this spring.
Attending the private high school enabled their children to play sports and be involved in activities, learn more about working and learning with peers and "dealing with other kids on a regular, every-day basis."
Sending children to ICS also provided a benchmark for the quality of their children's home education. "The only B (grade) Jessica ever got was the one that Debbie gave her," Frank Mylar said.
While some traditional public school advocates bristle at the free reign that home schoolers have operated under since a law was passed in 2005 exempting them from public school attendance or testing requirements, Debbie Mylar said home educators are solely accountable for the academic success of their children, which is an immense responsibility.
"As a parent, who wants their kid to succeed more than their parents do? It is a big responsibility. I don't want to be a stumbling block for them. That's all the accountability I need," she said.
But former state Rep. Sheryl Allen, who served on the Davis Board of Education 16 years as well as 12 years in the Utah House, gave home schoolers “carte blanche freedom on that issue.”
Home schooled students “have authority to participate in whatever they want with no accountability.”
At the same time, state lawmakers have made greater accountability demands of traditional public schools and public charter schools, she said.
“Everyone else has had their accountability intensified. It never goes in the other direction. I think it’s a political decision that ought to be revisited,” Allen said.
The law requires home educators each year to file an affidavit with their local school district on behalf of each child they home school. Home-schooled children are not required to take standardized tests nor are their parents required to maintain records of attendance or instruction. Local school districts may not inspect school facilities or require that home educators be credentialed teachers.
Rep. Mike Morley, R-Spanish Fork, the House sponsor of the legislation passed in 2005, said he’s unaware of any movement to change the policy.
“I think people have started to accept this is the norm now. It’s not a big, controversial issue any more,” he said.
While the Singers’ protests brought the of compulsory education to the foreground, Morely said, “you can’t legislate to the extreme.”
The goal behind sponsoring the legislation with Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Lehi, was to empower parents who want to exercise their right to educate their children as they see fit.
Allen says there are home school success stories but she worries about children whose parents aren't up to the task.
"Some parents do a great job. I personally know of parents who absolutely, positively did not," she said.
Sterling said Canyon School District strives to support all parents by offering instructional materials and it extends an open invitation to its family literacy center.
Whether a child attends his neighborhood school or he is educated at home, "they're part of our community. We want them to be an educated person so they can be a good citizen and ultimately contribute. Taking the big picture approach is always more helpful in the end."
The Mylars say they have tapped multiple resources to provide texts and curriculum that best suit their children. The beauty of home schooling is, the Mylars can be nimble if a certain approach does not suit one of their children. Public schools don't have that luxury, Debbie Mylar said.
Home schooling has had the added benefit of allowing their children sufficient time to develop their passions, such as art, music and athletics.
"I have more time to do things," said 11-year-old Rebekah, the budding artist of the family.
More important, Debbie Mylar said, home schooling allows the Mylar children to learn in a Christian environment and to build strong ties as a family.
"One of the blessings is being able to develop really wonderful relationships with all of them," she said.