Education watched in polygamist town

The Arizona Republic / September 3, 2000
By Mark Shaffer

Colorado City -It happened more than two generations ago, but the lesson still resonates among elected officials.

There are no political points to be gained in going after polygamists.

Then-Gov. Howard Pyle and police officers raided this town of men with many wives in 1953, arrested two dozen polygamous patriarchs and then watched in dismay as public opinion favored the women and children left behind. Pyle bitterly acknowledged up to his death that the raid cost him another term in office.

Now, Arizona is facing a different problem with polygamists along the fertile banks of Short Creek, at the foot of towering, pine-studded red cliffs: How to monitor the education of children when the entire town pulls out of the public school system.

Mike File, Mohave County's school superintendent, doesn't know. The state has some of the most lax home-schooling regulations in the country, requiring no testing for students or the people teaching them, said Patricia Likens, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Education.

File said more than 200 students were home-schooled in Colorado City last year, but only 35 affidavits attesting to home-schooling were filed with his office, which is on the other side of the Grand Canyon in Kingman. Now, there are about 650 more students being taught away from the public schools.More than 1,000 students attended schools in Colorado City during the last school year.

File also says he knows of only one, small private school in the area, in a nearby community of rival polygamists called Centennial Park.

The mass removal of students from Colorado City schools is raising serious questions again about the state's home-schooling laws. And there are requirements for home schools that most parents in Colorado City have been ignoring, File said. Like the filing of the home-schooling affidavits within 15 days after the start of the public school year.

"That has to be done for every child between the ages of 5 and 16," File said. "If you don't, that's child abuse in the law. However, I've never seen anyone go to court over it. It's not like anyone is going to turn in their neighbor up there and then be cited by police since everything is controlled by the First Ward of the church." File said he plans to visit this isolated area on the Arizona-Utah line at midmonth, carrying a box of home-school forms.

Alvin Barlow, superintendent of the public schools and one of the leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said he expects all the parents will abide by the law. He added that he even expects File to be a celebrity for a day because so few outsiders make it up to these parts.

"The focus should always be on how children are taught, not where they are taught," Barlow said. "And we have some of the most caring parents around in that regard."

Barlow emphasizes a list of academic achievement from the school district. It finished tied for third among all state districts on the math part of the AIMS test. It regularly dominates the Mohave County spelling bee, and its students have advanced to national competitions. Its art and science students have won numerous awards. And its music program has produced choral groups selected to perform for governors.

"The excellence you see there has its foundation in the home-learning environment," Barlow said.

But many around town question how stable home life is going to be in the near future. A power struggle for control of the Colorado City church appears to be in the offing. Rulon Jeffs, 90-year-old leader of the church, has been in declining health and has designated his son, Warren, as his successor.

The last time there was a transition of leadership in the church, in 1986, state law officers warned that rival groups were stockpiling arms in caves in the nearby cliffs. But Rulon Jeffs came out on top peacefully and used his business acumen to greatly enhance the church's position.

In addition to church leadership exhorting its members to turn their backs on public education, there have been other indicators that the Fundamental LDS church is trying to return to the past. Women church members have given up makeup, jewelry and anything other than ankle-length-long, Old West dresses. Televisions also aren't popular except to broadcast church-approved video programs.

Ben Bistline, a former member of the church who still lives in Colorado City, said church members also have been told almost every month that their rapture into heaven is imminent from atop a small knoll just outside town.

Rick Ross, a Valley resident who specializes in helping people recover from cult experiences, said he has worked with several people recently who had fled polygamous homes.

"There's a lot of uneasiness right now in Colorado City because of the change of leadership," Ross said. "And the dynamic in play there is that if people are told the end is near, they gravitate closer and depend more on that leader. The leader then filters the outside influences more and tells them that if the people reject him, they will be suspended in darkness for eternity."

Town Mayor Dan Barlow said such observations are typical of people who "don't attend our church nor know nothing about it."

"Sure, the second coming of our savior is imminent, but a lot of different faiths believe that," Barlow said. "But, as far as our church, it's extremely stable, and we just go on about our business."

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