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Parents Allegedly 'Stole' Educational Services

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Three residents of Hartford, Conn., have been arrested on felony charges for sending their children to school in a nearby suburb across district lines--in effect "stealing an education," authorities allege.

The arrests were made following routine investigations by local police at the request of the suburban Bloomfield school board to determine whether some students should be "disenrolled" because they did not meet local residency requirements. But the investigation turned up enough evidence to press charges against parents for first-degree larceny, officials said.

Under Connecticut law, defrauding a municipality of more than $2,000 in services is a felony more serious than stealing $4,000 from a store, according to Bloomfield's police chief, Philip R. Lincoln. The Hartford residents were essentially charged with stealing $4,001 worth of services--the average per-pupil cost in Bloomfield--from the Bloomfield school board by sending their children to school in that suburb, he said.

"The allegation is that they falsified their place of residence or the children's place of residence" in order to have the children attend school in Bloomfield, according to the police chief.

It is the first time that larceny charges in Connecticut have been filed in such a situation, according to local police and state education officials. The felony charges carry a maximum of up to a 20-year prison sentence and fines of up to $10,000.

Theodore M. Space, chairman of the Bloomfield school board, said the arrests would deter parents from enrolling their children across district lines.

"The question of residence is a perennial issue" before the board, according to Mr. Space, who said the board annually sees about 500 situations that warrant monitoring and holds about five to seven disenrollment hearings.

Divorce and Demographics

Because of today's high divorce rates and frequent migration of families, many children move or change their living situation frequently, posing problems for districts that want to monitor who belongs in their schools, school officials say.

"Students with family problems sometimes want to live away from a parent or both parents, or a family moves and one of the children wants to stay and complete his education in the old surroundings," according to Mr. Space. "And sometimes you hear of situations in which athletes want to cross district lines to play on other teams or in other leagues,"he continued.

According to Chief Lincoln, as3many as 100 children could be illegally enrolled in the 2,500-student district; more arrest warrants may be sought soon, he said.

In Connecticut, as elsewhere, state statutes "as yet do not give much direction to districts to decide if kids are 'legal' residents of a town," according to Lise S. Heintz, a spokesman for the state department of education.

The question of residency generally turns on the intent of students and their parents, Connecticut legal experts say.

Urban vs. Suburban

But the recent arrests have suggested to some state education authorities and politicians there that there is another reason for cross-district transfer: Parents in urban communities want to send their children to suburban schools to give them what they perceive as a better education in a more tranquil setting.

According to Chief Lincoln, one of the students said he crossed over to Bloomfield because he did poorly in the city schools. Although he had been suspended in Hartford, he liked school in Bloomfield and had a B average.

But the police chief said those facts have "very little to do with the police investigation."

"From the police standpoint, we merely enforce law," he said. "We don't argue rights or wrongs of law or its philosophy and certainly don't go about evaluating someone else's educational system."

State education officials say the financial support for schools in Hartford and Bloomfield is virtually equal. Bloomfield ranks eighth among the state's 165 districts and Hartford ranks 10th in per-pupil expenditures for education, according to Ms. Heintz.

Although test scores indicate that students from urban centers tend to score lower than their counterparts in the suburbs, the state has no absolute ranking of districts in terms of achievement and "is loath to categorize urban districts as inferior to suburban districts," she said.

A hearing in the larceny case has been scheduled in superior court in Hartford in early May. The cases probably will not go to trial for several months, Chief Lincoln said.

The three parents have been released on their own recognizance until the hearing. Two of the students have been "disenrolled" from Bloomfield schools--one as the result of a board hearing and one as a result of the mother's actions, according to Herbert Chester, superintendent of schools.

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