Dantae Clowers was recently christened "student of the month" at Columbia High School in this suburban New Jersey town. That may not seem remarkable, except for one thing: The district had been trying to expel him.
His alleged crime: theft of an education.
Last year, Dantae moved from Florida to Maplewood to live with an uncle. The district, strapped for cash, said the newcomer couldn't attend school at taxpayers' expense. But his uncle appealed. After months of legal maneuvering, the shy senior was finally declared a "legitimate" student - two months before graduation.
Dantae's case epitomizes a growing dilemma for the nation's schools as they try to cut costs: How to get rid of students who cross district lines to attend classes, without depriving those who are eligible. It also points up the sensitive issue of uneven education among rich and poor districts - a burgeoning problem in American education.
Paying for the education of kids whose parents don't pay taxes in their towns can be very expensive. As budgets become tighter, classes overcrowded, and state aid to education diminishes, cash-strapped suburban school districts across the country are under growing pressure to find "offenders." They're doing so aggressively, even relentlessly. Critics say they're intimidating innocent families.
* In Pelham, N.Y., a suburb near the Bronx, private investigators - often acting on tips from teachers and parents - track down students who travel to school by car and give a phony address.
* In East Hartford, Conn., officials are debating whether to pass an ordinance to prosecute parents who "attempt to defraud the East Hartford property owners of the cost of education," according to local councilman James Parker.
* Attendance officers in Chicago videotape kids getting off the elevated trains arriving from Evanston, Ill., where they attended schools illegally.
* In what's considered the strongest stand, North Bergen, N.J., is handing out cash rewards of $100 for tips leading to the "arrest" of the "offenders."
Policing the "illegals" has become necessary, school officials say. Parents paying a premium to send their kids to good schools shouldn't have to subsidize the education of out-of-towners.
"I can't recall a single major school board meeting when somebody from the audience didn't get up and say, 'What are you doing with the illegals?' " says Robert Tessaro, the school board's attorney in Fort Lee, N.J., which has long battled fraudulent enrollment by New Yorkers.
But with their aggressive tactics, schools are fostering a track-'em-down-and-turn-'em-in mentality, critics say. It has led to a climate of suspicion and poor attitudes toward ethnic or social groups, they say. Rather than going after innocent kids, they say, states should increase their share of education costs so the disparities between property-rich and property-poor districts aren't so great.
"The dragnet is thrown out too widely and they catch too many innocent families. School boards have to be much more careful," says Frank Askin, founder of the Constitutional Litigation Clinic at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., which represents Dantae. "They hire detectives to see how many kids they can get out of schools. They're not concerned about making sure that kids are properly educated, they're concerned about their tax dollars."
Dantae's is one in a growing number of a new brand of cases filed against New Jersey districts over the past two years.
They involve relatives or friends taking care of children who are denied enrollment in public schools because they don't live with their biological parents. Families say they're harassed by investigators knocking on their doors in the middle of the night or by school officials questioning family decisions.
"There's a panic, a sort of paranoia that suburban schools are infiltrated by urban kids," says Ellen Boylan of the Educational Law Center in
"Some of these towns are concerned about the racial composition of the schools," Askin says. "They're concerned about an influx of nonwhite students."
Fraudulent enrollment isn't new. It happens in many places where urban centers are bordered by suburban schools that parents feel are better and safer. But the problem has grown more complex as more children are living with relatives, grandparents, or friends.
The New Jersey School Boards Association estimates the state has 8,000 illegally enrolled students. "The idea of curbing illegal enrollment isn't done out of mean-spiritedness but out of financial necessity - and simply because it's illegal," says Frank Belluscio of the association.
North Bergen, a community separated from Manhattan by the Lincoln Tunnel, is cracking down. The effort has produced results, administrators boast: Only 75 students were kicked out last year, compared with 90 the year before.
"We want to nip it in the bud," says John Bellurado, the district's director of pupil attendance.
To check residency, the district relies on the vigilance of truancy officers and off-duty cops who visit homes day and night. Hiring the cops costs $15,000 per year. Considering it costs about $7,000 to educate a child each year, the district figures it's saving hundreds of thousands of dollars by throwing students out.
But the district's boldest measure, has been to offer $100 for tips leading to an "arrest." Most tips come from students, but the money is issued to parents. The district is now discussing plans to videotape kids as they leave their houses in neighboring Jersey City.
To combat the problem, administrators are strengthening registration procedures by requiring parents to bring, for instance, a certificate of occupancy in the district or notarized statements from landlords of leases.
Disenrolling kids is one of the hardest aspects of their job, they agree. It's hard to confront parents with evidence that they've lied. And it's heart-wrenching to have to have to kick children out in the middle of the school year.
"My job is to keep kids in school till they graduate, not to keep kids out of school," says Robert Greenberg, superintendent of schools in White Plains, N.Y., a district of 6,000 pupils located one hour from New York City. "But I have an obligation to the citizens of the town." Dr. Greenberg has to refuse enrollment to about 50 "illegal" children every year. In rare cases, he also has collected back tuition from their parents.
More states are passing laws that give districts more teeth to go after out-of-towners. Illinois did so in January by classifying enrollment fraud as a theft punishable by jail for parents and tuition reimbursement. New Jersey, New York, and Maryland allow schools to claim back tuition from "illegal" students' parents.
The real challenge for schools, experts say, is to determine who is a legitimate resident of their town. Many children have been shuffled among relatives or friends because of complex family situations.
"In some cases it's very difficult, if not impossible, to know whether the child is there solely for educational purposes," says Lloyd Lehman, superintendent of the Suburban Cook County education office, which oversees 143 districts near Chicago. "How do you decide whether there's a legitimate need of the parents [to send their kids somewhere else]?"
Many schools say they're in this bind. In Maplewood, School Board President George Robinson says, "If you don't live with your parents, we have to understand why ... not." Maybe so, but that doesn't justify pre-dawn visits to people's homes, says Steve Latz, who's running for school board in April. "This is a poor way to extend a welcome to these families and is constitutionally suspect as well, exposing the district to the potential of costly litigation," says his campaign brochure.
Dantae's long journey
Dantae didn't set out to "steal" tax dollars from Maplewood residents. When he left Miami, where he grew up, in the summer of 1995, it was to grasp his uncle's helping hand at a rough time. The teen was cutting classes, and his mother had lost her job. His uncle, Christopher Jones, had always been close to the boy so it was natural to take Dantae in.
Within months, Dantae turned 18 and he registered to vote here, changed his driver's license, and started attending a church youth group. But when Columbia High refused to register Dantae, Mr. Jones, who is African-American, appealed the rejection to the state's commissioner of education.
"The message given to us was, we shouldn't be taking people in, whatever the circumstances," says Jones, an accountant at Lucent Technology who moved to Maplewood three years ago. In March, Jones got a letter from Superintendent Ralph Lieber saying the school board had dropped the challenge to Dantae's enrollment. Mr. Lieber apologized for the inconvenience - although didn't admit wrongdoing.