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Why would students return to Hogwarts knowing that Snape was headmaster and that they would likely be mistreated there?

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    For the same reason kids go back to school if there is a principal there they don't like. They have to.
    – Robert
    Dec 29, 2014 at 3:28
  • @Robert IRL they don't have to (although CrowTRobot's answer makes it clear they do in HP7).
    – Rand al'Thor
    Feb 19, 2015 at 10:18

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Voldemort had taken over the ministry and made it mandatory to attend Hogwarts, as it's revealed in Chapter 11- The Bribe:

What’s Voldemort planning for Hogwarts?” she asked Lupin.

“Attendance is now compulsory for every young witch and wizard,” he replied. “That was announced yesterday. It’s a change, because it was never obligatory before. Of course, nearly every witch and wizard in Britain has been educated at Hogwarts, but their parents had the right to teach them at home or send them abroad if they preferred. This way, Voldemort will have the whole Wizarding population under his eye from a young age. And it’s also another way of weeding out Muggle-borns, because students must be given Blood Status – meaning that they have proven to the Ministry that they are of Wizard descent – before they are allowed to attend.”

Presumably if you refused, the Death Eaters / Ministry would show up and demand to know why you weren't sending your children to Hogwarts, as the coup was kept very quiet, so not many people would have known how dangerous it would be to send your kids back to school, as Lupin hints at:

“Naturally many people have deduced what has happened: There has been such a dramatic change in Ministry policy in the last few days, and many are whispering that Voldemort must be behind it. However, that is the point: They whisper. They daren’t confide in each other, not knowing whom to trust; they are scared to speak out, in case their suspicions are true and their families are targeted. Yes, Voldemort is playing a very clever game. Declaring himself might have provoked open rebellion: Remaining masked has created confusion, uncertainty, and fear.”

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