Bipartisan compromise allows House to pass Raylee’s Law

Photo courtesy of WV Legislative Photography House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty talked about the namesake for Raylee’s Law after a two-hour debate on a bill to protect public school students from being taken out of school by parents during active CPS investigations.

CHARLESTON — Democratic and Republican members of the West Virginia House of Delegates were able to come together Monday and agree on an amendment to a bill that will help protect children from being ripped from public schools by parents under investigation for suspected child abuse.

The House passed House Bill 5180, removing requirements to submit certain evidence on behalf of home schooled children, in an 99-0 vote Monday after nearly two hours of debate on the bipartisan amendment — which was adopted by voice vote — to add a narrowly tailored version of Raylee’s Law to the bill.

HB 5180 adds learning pods and micro schools for academic assessment requirements. The bill requires learning pods and micro schools to maintain copies of a student’s Academic Assessment for three years and allow results to be submitted as composite results for all students versus submitted results for each individual student in grade levels three, five, eight, and 11.

The House Democratic caucus tried to make the bill the vehicle for a caucus priority, with minority members of the House Judiciary Committee attempting to amend provisions of House Bill 4491 — also known as Raylee’s Law — into HB 5180 last week. That effort failed in a 5-15 vote.

Raylee’s Law, as introduced in HB 4491, would allow county boards of education to reject a request for homeschooling by a parent if there is a pending child abuse or neglect investigation against a parent, guardian, and or a person serving as a child’s instructor. It would also prohibit homeschooling by a parent, guardian, or instructor who has been convicted of domestic violence, child abuse, or neglect.

The bill is named for Raylee Jolynn Browning, a child in Oak Hill who died in 2018 due to child abuse from her father, Marty Browning. Raylee had been pulled from public school by Marty. He, along with his girlfriend and girlfriend’s sister, were sentenced in 2022 after being convicted for child neglect causing death.

“I often wonder what she would look like today,” said House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, the lead sponsor of Raylee’s Law while holding up a large photo of Raylee. “She’d be my niece’s age, your niece’s age, your granddaughter’s age … Raylee doesn’t have a lobbyist. Kids situated like her don’t have lobbyists. All they have as a defense mechanism is us.”

Fluharty attempted to offer an amendment from the House floor Thursday to add Raylee’s Law to HB 5180. But after back-and-forth debate and questions, Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, offered to work with Fluharty on an amendment that could garner support from the Republican majority, and action was postponed on the bill until Tuesday.

The Fluharty/Steele reformed amendment — after it was reformed Tuesday — would prohibit a county board of education from authorizing home school instruction for currently enrolled public school children when there is a pending child abuse or neglect investigation against a parent or custodians that is initiated by a school teacher or other school personnel.

Once a county superintendent is aware of an active investigation, they must request confirmation from the Department of Human Services, which must provide information within 48 hours of the requests. If the complaint can’t be substantiated within 14 days of an initiated investigation, the superintendent can then authorize home school instruction.

A successful amendment to Fluharty’s amendment offered by Del. Heather Tully, R-Nicholas, would require county superintendents to develop policies to ensure they are contacted when a report of suspected child abuse and neglect is made by a teacher or other school personnel.

“What I am … willing to do is tip the scales in the favor of the child for 14 days until it can be sorted out by the court system and by CPS,” Tully said.

Supporters of the amendment believe Raylee’s Law closes a loophole that some parents of public school children use to escape scrutiny by school staff of possible child abuse and neglect by seeking to homeschool their children and avoid further scrutiny.

“This bill is about very specific scenarios where a teacher receives information or observes something from a student they believe is abuse or neglect and it needs to be investigated,” said Del. Todd Kirby, R-Raleigh. “This amendment only kicks in when the parent of that child comes to that school and removes that child from the school after the investigation has already been started.”

“If this amendment, as narrow as it is, protects one child, then it’s worth it,” said Del. Jonathan Pinson, R-Mason. “I realize there could be a delay in someone’s homeschool application to be approved, but what about the child who doesn’t want to be left at home with these people? What about the child who doesn’t want to be removed from the school and from the adults who don’t hurt them?”

Opponents of the Raylee’s Law amendment believe that even with it narrowly tailored, it could still affect current homeschool families.

“The proposed amendment frustrated what is being offered in the bill,” said House Education Committee Chairman Joe Ellington, R-Mercer. “We should focus on correcting the CPS situation and not put a burden on homeschool educators.”

“The amendment claims a parent is guilty until they are proven innocent,” said Del. Kathie Hess Crouse, R-Putnam. “This amendment will be abused.”

Steele, the co-author of the revised amendment, urged his colleagues to support adding Raylee’s Law to State Code.

“If we’re going to do anything in here to help and protect our kids, we’ve got to do it together, we’ve got to do it bipartisan, and we’ve got to lay down the rhetoric when the clear writing in front of us that this applies to the most narrow situations you could possibly think of,” Steele said. “This will not affect my homeschool kids. It will not affect any other kids getting homeschooled in here. This is a pump of the brakes, because we have lost lives. It’s not just Raylee.”

The bill now heads to the state Senate.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today