The state of New Jersey is considering a bill that would require a state-mandated annual medical exam for all kids who are homeschooled.

I understand why homeschoolers get upset about this. The implication is that all homeschoolers are child abusers. And this is, in fact, a problem.

Take this New York Times article by Erik Eckholm. The article is about some a priest who has sold 670,000 copies of his book, To Train Up a Child, which advocates spanking kids with a rod and other implements. And kids are dying. The article is important, for sure, because the priest’s ideas are gaining traction, and as a society, we care a lot about making sure kids are safe. The problem with the article is Eckholm’s gratuitous mentions of homeschooling. The parents who beat the kid to death “were home schooling their six children.” To me, this mention seems tantamount to the gratuitous mention that someone is Jewish. Or black. The implication that the information is relevant is damning to the whole group, whether the group is blacks, Jews, homeschoolers, whoever.

So we have a problem that the idea that home schoolers are nutcases is promoted in the New York Times, which prompts reinforcement of the stereotype in legislative offices.

But here’s the other problem: Most egregious cases of abuse happen when kids are hidden. Which homeschooling allows. So maybe it would be okay for all homeschoolers to submit to medical exams so that a few children in each state can be saved from extreme abuse that would otherwise go unnoticed.

That’s one way to look at it. Here’s another way to look at it. Most times that a kid is hidden in a home and being abused, someone knows about it. Someone knows something is not right in that house. But in our society, where kids are sent away to school for eight hours a day, we assume that protecting our neighbor’s kid is the job of someone else. The school with catch it.

In the wake of the Penn State child abuse horror, we discover that people expected someone else to take care of things. There is a line of people who saw the abuse, and reported it to someone else in their chain of command. There is not a sense that if you see it, you personally must stop it.

This all reminds me of the Genovese Syndrome. It refers to Kitty Genovese, a woman who was murdered as she was screaming in an apartment complex where many people heard her cries for help and no one did anything. The Genovese Syndrome is the proclivity for individuals to do nothing if they perceive that many other people have heard the need for action and done nothing.

I think sending kids to school creates a society-wide Genovese Syndrome when it comes to child abuse. I’m not sure what to do about it. We should acknowledge that statistically speaking, it is certain that there are more kids being abused by parents who send their kids to school than who don’t send their kids to school. But for now, I don’t think I’d mind bringing my kids in for medical exams if I could save one or two lives that way.

Photo by Josh Anderson