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20 Years in Prison for Sending Your Kids to the Wrong School? Inequality in School Systems Leads Parents to Big Risks

There's a vast difference in quality among public school districts in the US--and parents who try to enroll their kids in better schools may face severe punishment.
 
 
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Kindergartener A.J. Paches was kicked out of Brookside Elementary School earlier this year because his homeless mother used a friend's address to register him in the wealthy district of Norwalk, Connecticut. After expelling A.J., Norwalk authorities charged his mother with first-degree larceny for enrolling her son under a false address, a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. 

Sadly, A.J.'s story is not unique. He is one of several low-income students whose parents use the residence of a relative or friend to provide their children with educational opportunities that are severely lacking in poor districts. In the recession era of budget deficits and cuts to public education, wealthy school districts are cracking down hard on these families, going to extreme lengths to identify the kids and prosecute the parents.

Bounties, Private Investigators, Tipsters, and Stakeouts

One popular method is to offer bounties to tipsters who report students who turn out to be illegally enrolled. As of 2008, the Bayonne Board of Education in New Jersey offers a  $100 bounty  for tips about students suspected of lying about their residency. In the middle-class suburban enclave of Clifton, New Jersey, the bounty is set at $300 for informants who correctly report a boundary hopper. According to the  New York Times , the district immediately follows up with a visit by an “attendance officer” to the suspected students home.

In anticipation of the growing demand for residence verification, private companies like  VerifyResidence.com and LiarCatchers.comare offering their investigative services aimed directly at public school districts. According to its Web site, VerifyResidence.com not only offers residence audits, but also surveillance stakeouts by investigators using “the latest in covert video technology and digital photographic equipment to photograph, videotape, and document subject activity when logistically possible.”

Arrests, Felony Charges and Jail Time

Perhaps more shocking than the invasive surveillance techniques schools are using to identify these students, are the punishments they dish out to parents.

Take the case of  Kelley Williams-Bolar , an African-American single mother living in the housing projects of Akron, Ohio. She made national headlines in January when she was convicted on two felony counts of tampering with court records and sentenced to 10 days in jail with three years probation for illegally enrolling her kids in the predominately white and higher-quality school district next door.

Fearing for the safety of her two daughters in the Akron school district, Williams-Bolar used her father’s address in the nearby suburban district of Copley-Fairlawn to enroll her children in what she believed was a better performing and safer school environment. In handing down what many considered a harsh sentence,  Judge Patricia Cosgrove  specifically noted that the court was making an example out of Williams-Bolar ”so that others who think they might defraud the school system perhaps will think twice.”

Williams-Bolar had been working as a teacher’s aide in the Akron city school district while taking night classes to earn a teaching degree. Two felony convictions would likely have jeopardized a future teaching career. Fortunately, Ohio Governor John Kasich intervened by reducing her charges to misdemeanors, calling it “ a second chance ” rather than a pass. However, other parents facing similar circumstances haven’t been as lucky.

In April, the  Stamford Advocate , a local Connecticut paper, reported that 33-year-old Tanya McDowell, a homeless single mother from Bridgeport, Connecticut, was arrested for registering her 5-year-old son for kindergarten in the affluent school district of Norwalk by using the address of her son’s after-school babysitter, Ana Rebecca Marquez. McDowell is currently facing up to 20 years in prison for first-degree larceny and conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny along with a $15,000 fine, which is supposedly to reimburse Norwalk for the cost of educating her son.

 
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