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

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.

Regarding McDowell's charges, Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia said, "This now sends a message to other parents that may have been living in other towns and registering their kids with phony addresses," suggesting that the reason for the prosecution has more to do with making an example out of McDowell than seeking restitution or justice.

In the meantime, McDowell's son, now 6, is staying with his grandmother while his mother is in jail awaiting trial. McDowell is receiving support from both the NAACP and the Connecticut Parents Union (CTPU), an education advocacy group.

Gwendolyn Samuel, founder of CTPU, told me that Ana Marquez, the babysitter who allowed McDowell to use her address, “got hit the hardest." After the Norwalk Housing Authority evicted Marquez for fraud, her two young children, ages 4 and 6, were removed from her custody by the Department of Children and Family Services for a week. The family was then left homeless, shuffling from shelter to shelter for months. Meanwhile, the housing authority seized Marquez's household belongings, which it has yet to return.

Due to the trauma endured by Marquez and her small children, who are now living with relatives in Florida, the CTPU has filed a lawsuit against the Norwalk Housing Authority on their behalf. Samuel is adamant about assisting Marquez in seeking damages from the housing authority for their reckless handling of her case.

“What Norwalk allowed to happen to Ana is why I get up every morning and do what I do," says Samuel. “She used her address to give a five-year-old boy access to good crayons and books and you arrest her for that?"

Samuel believes that McDowell's desperation, while tragic, was predictable given Connecticut's achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent counterparts, which is the highest in the country.

That is why the CTPU also supports Ana Wade and her mother Marie Menard, who were arrested last October for first-degree larceny and conspiracy for registering Wade's two children in the Stratford school district where Menard lives. This case is slightly more complicated than the others, because the children were in fact living with their grandmother during the school week while spending the weekends with their mother in her Milford, Connecticut home.

In August the CTPU assisted Menard in filing a civil lawsuit against the Stratford superintendent and board of education for violating the state's equal protection laws because the two women were singled out for arrest while the vast majority of other parents caught for the same violation were simply asked to leave the district.

CTPU has been working to pass a legislative amendment that would prohibit the arrest of parents who lie about where they live to provide their children with a better education.

Educational Inequality at the Heart of This Debate

The striking disparities in school quality between rich and poor neighborhoods aren't exactly a secret. Any person who has stepped foot inside a wealthy suburban public school and an inner city public school would have to be blind not to recognize the differences in class and race. But for those who haven't seen it for themselves, the willingness of parents to risk breaking the law to send their kids to better schools should serve as a window into the inequalities that permeate the American public school system. Hiring detectives to videotape kids at the bus stop and throwing parents in jail is not going to change that.

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