Homeless child enrolled in wrong school: What should happen to him?

Connecticut resident Tanya McDowell is charged with intentionally enrolling her son in the wrong school district. But homeless advocates wonder why the son has now changed schools, since federal law is supposed to protect his 'best educational interest.'

Stephanie Reitz/AP
Tanya McDowell (l.) stands with Connecticut NAACP Conference President Scott Exdaile and other supporters outside state superior court in Norwalk, Conn., Wednesday.

The case of Tanya McDowell is putting advocates for homeless students on alert.

Ms. McDowell pleaded not guilty in Norwalk Superior Court Wednesday to felony larceny charges for wrongly enrolling her son in kindergarten in a Norwalk, Conn., school. She has said that she splits her time between a Norwalk shelter, her van, and a friend’s apartment in Bridgeport. But prosecutors say that she illegally used her baby sitter's address to enroll her son in a better-performing school system than the one he was legally obligated to attend.

The charges carry a potential 20-year prison sentence and up to $15,000 in fines.

For homeless advocates, however, one of the most important issues in the case revolves around the fate of the child, who transferred to a school in nearby Bridgeport in January. Education research has shown that moving homeless students from school to school can be detrimental to their success, and it is still unclear whether McDowell moved her son voluntarily or whether she was forced to.

“Any midyear disruption that can be avoided needs to be avoided.... We need to stabilize kids’ education and not have these bureaucratic boundary lines get in the way,” says Barbara Duffield, a spokeswoman for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) in Washington.

The Norwalk district claims that McDowell decided to move him on her own, without telling Norwalk officials she was homeless. McDowell claims some authority called her and told her she had to move her son to a school in Bridgeport, where her most recent permanent address had been.

Federal law protects homeless students

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act requires states to ensure that homeless children have equal access to education, and to reduce barriers to school stability. “That’s the federal law’s entire point, to look at that child’s best educational interest,” Ms. Duffield says.

The economy is ratcheting up the number of students who don’t have a steady place to live. In 2008-09, the number of K-12 students identified as homeless was 956,914, up 41 percent from two years before, according to NAEHCY. Among the states that have sent the group more recent numbers, the increases range from 5 percent in Oregon to more than 25 percent in Nebraska.

Under McKinney-Vento, homelessness includes not just living in shelters, motels, or cars, but also doubling up with other families because of loss of housing or economic hardship.

The law allows students to stay in the school they were attending when they became homeless even if their family is moving around, or to move to the school in the area that has become their primary nighttime residence.

The McDowell case, apparently the first such criminal case in Connecticut, highlights the challenges school districts can face in identifying homeless students.

The Norwalk Public Schools issued a press release saying that Ms. McDowell’s son was enrolled in September based on a residency affidavit stating that she and her son lived in Norwalk. The district did not initiate any proceeding to remove him from the elementary school nor request reimbursement after he left the school Jan. 14. It simply transferred records based on a request from a Bridgeport school that had been signed by McDowell, according to the press release.

Prosecutors say McDowell used a babysitter’s Norwalk address to enroll him in school. McDowell said her son went to the babysitter’s after school, according to press reports.

Connecticut investigation

Louis Tallarita, Connecticut’s state coordinator of the McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth program, says he’s talked with the Norwalk homeless-student liaison and is satisfied with the district’s version of events.

He says it’s extremely uncommon for residency disputes to be pursued criminally and that in this case the school district had no say. “I am concerned that the professionals that are charged with public education in the school district would not be given the authority or the opportunity to deal with this issue involving the best interest of a child in their district,” Tallarita says.

Tallarita has asked Norwalk school officials to review their practices related to homeless students to see if any improvements need to be made. He’s also talked to the homeless liaison in Bridgeport, who plans to reach out to McDowell and her son now that news about the criminal case has alerted them to his unstable living situation.

If McDowell stayed at a shelter, the shelter should have been in touch with the school district to ensure the child’s educational needs were being met, Duffield suggests.

In Connecticut, 2,760 students were identified as homeless in 2009-10.

Echoes of Ohio case

The McDowell case resonates with civil rights advocates much as the case of Kelley Williams-Bolar did. Ms. Williams-Bolar, also an African-American, served nine days in jail in Ohio earlier this year for falsifying documents to enroll her children in a wealthier and safer school district.

Williams-Bolar wanted to attend an event in support of McDowell this week, but a judge would not allow her to travel, according to a blog post on ThyBlackMan.com.

McDowell is now being represented by a lawyer from the local chapter of the NAACP. Neither the NAACP lawyer nor the prosecutor could be reached for comment.

McDowell is due in court May 11 to face the larceny charges. Her lawyers have said they plan to request a change of venue. She will also face at that time a drug charge pending since November. According to the Stamford Advocate, she has a criminal record.

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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