HARTFORD, Conn. —A homeless single mother's arrest on charges she intentionally enrolled her son in the wrong school district by using her baby sitter's address is raising questions about uneven enforcement of residency rules as budget-conscious cities nationwide crack down on out-of-towners in their classrooms.
Tanya McDowell's arrest in Norwalk last month came a few months after Kelley Williams-Bolar of Akron, Ohio, was convicted of falsifying records for using her father's address to send her children to safer suburban schools.
Yet in Connecticut, Ohio and elsewhere throughout the U.S., officials acknowledge parents are routinely caught doing the same thing but rarely face criminal charges.
McDowell and Williams-Bolar are low-income black single mothers, a fact that disturbs civil rights activists who question whether they are being singled out unfairly.
McDowell returns to court Wednesday in Norwalk, where she is charged with felony larceny for allegedly stealing $15,686 of educational services by enrolling her 5-year-old in kindergarten last fall under her baby sitter's Norwalk address. The baby sitter was later evicted.
Norwalk school officials found 26 other children illegally enrolled during the same time, but McDowell is the only one facing criminal charges. And in the Ohio case, the Copley-Fairlawn district removed about 50 out-of-towners from its schools in the past few years but only Williams-Bolar ended up before a judge.
No government agencies or education advocacy groups track the number of students discovered to be illegally enrolled in the wrong districts nationwide and how the cases are resolved. Many states, including Connecticut, let local districts decide how aggressively to enforce the rules.
"I understand you want to give districts autonomy on how they handle things, but it doesn't make sense that some families are eased out quietly and other parents are arrested," said Gwen Samuels, founder of the Connecticut Parents Union advocacy group and one of McDowell's supporters.
Samuels said she doesn't advocate more arrests; on the contrary, she thinks the cases show how desperately parents want access to better schools.
The issue is particularly thorny in states where cities, not larger counties, run school districts and just an invisible town border can separate a troubled urban district from wealthier suburbs.
David Singleton, Williams-Bolar's attorney in the Ohio case, said he doesn't think race was a factor in her arrest, but thinks it was driven by her inability to reimburse the Copley-Fairlawn district — something that wealthier families could do quietly and put the matter behind them, while she ended up with a felony conviction.
Prosecutors say McDowell told Norwalk authorities she lived in Bridgeport and never indicated she was homeless.
A review of recent Connecticut news clippings found a handful of residency-related arrests of parents in recent years, including a New Haven pastor who sent his children to suburban schools under his great-aunt's address.
In that case and two others, the parents eventually were granted a form of special probation that later removed the criminal charges from their records.