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Districts Go on Offensive To Find Students Illegitimately Attending Schools

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Resurrecting a practice from the days when outlaws roamed the Wild West, a New Jersey school district is using "bounty hunters'' to track down students illegitimately attending its schools.

A high school outside of Chicago, meanwhile, is relying on the tools of modern-day law enforcement to identify students who do not belong.

Elsewhere, school systems have put in place elaborate documentation programs to ferret out out-of-district residents.

The efforts are directed against students who use false addresses to register--in many cases, inner-city youths who shift to affluent suburban districts in hopes of obtaining a better education.

The pressure to devise more inventive ways to uncover nonresident students has increased as budgets have grown tighter, school officials say. Although the students in many cases would generate additional state and federal aid for the districts, the bulk of the costs of educating them must be borne by local taxpayers.

"I think we're going to have to become more aggressive in removing nondistrict students,'' said Robert N. Milano, the principal of Proviso West High School in suburban Chicago. "You have to get more aggressive because tax dollars are very hard to come by. If you can reduce your enrollment ... you are going to save many tax dollars.''

Hundred-Dollar Bounties

The Clifton, N.J., schools employ what is believed to be the first bounty program in the nation.

Because Clifton is one of the wealthier districts in New Jersey, state aid is being phased out for the 7,400-student school system under the state's school-finance-reform law. Its allocation was reduced by almost $500,000 this school year.

Faced with the declining revenue, the district decided it was cheaper to pay bounties than to educate outsider students. So, for every student a tipster correctly identifies, the school system pays a $100 bounty.

About a dozen students have been discovered through the bounty program, which began this year.

"It has the benefit of making people who might want to bring their child here think twice because they know there is a very elaborate system in place,'' said Superintendent William C. Liess.

Once the district gets a tip, one of its part-time, $20-an-hour "residency investigators,'' who are typically retired police officers or former teachers, begins to probe into a student's documentation. Although Mr. Liess declined to divulge most of the investigatory techniques, he said they do include home visits.

If the tip checks out, the person who fingered the student gets the bounty.

Most of the students are returned to their home districts. One student who was within two months of graduating was allowed to stay, Mr. Leiss said, but the youth's parents were billed for tuition.

The Garfield, N.J., school district, where enrollment has increased 15 percent in the past two years, also is considering a bounty program.

"We need additional classes, teachers, and buildings,'' said Robert Van Zanten, the Garfield superintendent. "We certainly can't afford the dual problem of kids coming from other districts.''

Surveilling the 'El'

Located about 15 miles outside of Chicago, Proviso West High School has long attracted city youths willing to ride a bus or train for as long as an hour and a half.

"I sympathize with these kids because they want an education, but it is the taxpayers of this township who pay,'' Mr. Milano said. "It's unfair to them to have outsiders come in and attend the high school.''

To catch those students, Mr. Milano several years ago began surveillance at the train station, watching students get off the trains that carried them from Chicago.

That method was somewhat inefficient, though, because of the crush of riders getting off at the stop. So Mr. Milano turned to technology.

He and his audio-visual expert videotape students at the train station and bus terminals. Then, back at the school, they can play back the tape and identify the students who do not belong at Provisio West.

"The minute you show that videotape, all arguments [of mistaken identity] are dead,'' Mr. Milano said.

Using the video camera, the school last year found about a dozen out-of-district students. As tales of his method have infiltrated the student body this year, the third in which the system has been in use, it has been less successful.

"If they have any suspicion someone is right there looking for them,'' Mr. Milano said, "they get right back on the train.''

Paper Documentation Required

Immediately adjacent to Chicago is the Oak Park and River Forest high-school district. An estimated 200 out-of-district students try to get in each year, according to Larry V. Walker, the associate superintendent for public services.

Some parents give up after finding out all the documentation their children will need to enroll. But about 75 make a sustained effort, Mr. Walker said.

The one-school district of 2,700 students screens primarily through an elaborate paper documentation system. But Mr. Walker and a part-time investigator occasionally stake out the "el'' as well.

Nonetheless, Mr. Walker said, some taxpayers still question the district's vigilance. Some parents at one point presented the school board with 54 license-plate numbers they had observed when students were being dropped off at the high school. The vehicles were suspect because they lacked a village sticker, which residents are required to display.

Mr. Walker investigated each of the license plates but found not a single violator, although he did find that one car was registered to a fugitive from the police.

"Half turned out to be residents; some of them were friends of students who picked them up and dropped them off,'' he recalled.

"It tears my heart out that every kid does not have access to every kind of activity we have here in this school,'' Mr. Walker said. "I am smart enough to know if we take in everybody, this school is not going to be any more than the [schools] they were trying to escape.''

'It's All Over'

The West New York, N.J., district, directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan, has found New York City students attending its schools.

To cut down on the number of students attending illicitly, West New York has begun to ask students for utility bills throughout the year, not just once at the beginning.

Districts also ask for apartment leases, letters from landlords, property titles, cable-television bills, birth certificates, and divorce decrees, among other documents. Some have set up computer programs that signal warnings.

"You've got Trenton [students] trying to get into Lawrenceville. You get the urban inner-city kids trying to get into the outlying area. It's not just West New York; it's all over,'' said John Mirabelli, the chief attendance officer for West New York.

In Montgomery County, Md., a Washington suburb with a highly regarded school system, students cross over from both the District of Columbia and from neighboring Prince George's County.

At Blair High School, which is within walking distance of the area's commuter-rail system, school officials several years ago found about 200 out-of-district students in a total enrollment of about 2,200.

Officials concede that they made the discoveries only after the students acted in a way that generated paperwork. If they were tardy or underperforming academically, letters would go out to their parents. Returned mail triggered further investigation.

"Essentially, if a kid came to school, did a good job, and attended all of his classes, [he or she] probably wouldn't be discovered,'' said Blair's principal, Phillip F. Gainous. "As soon as they start generating the computer work, that is usually what starts sending up the flags.''

Officials also discovered that they inherited most of the out-of-district students from Montgomery County's middle and elementary schools. Some had been in the system since kindergarten, Mr. Gainous said.

Districts' efforts against outsider students occasionally run into resistance from the courts.

A municipal court judge ordered Oak Park and River Forest, for example, to accept a student whose parents, while living outside the district, had had their names included on the deed to a condominium in the community purchased by a relative.

"It is becoming more difficult ... to determine what constitutes residency,'' Mr. Walker observed.

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