Law & Courts

Mother’s Arrest Raises Questions of Where Homeless Children Can Enroll

By Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, Christian Science Monitor — April 29, 2011 4 min read
Tanya McDowell, right, stands with her attorney during her arraignment on larceny charges in Superior Court in Norwalk, Conn., on April 27. McDowell, a homeless and single mother, was charged with larceny for allegedly using her babysitter's Norwalk address to enroll her 6-year-old in school.

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.

See Also

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 struggling economy has ratcheted 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.

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.

Related Tags:

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright (c) 2011, The Christian Science Monitor. Republished with permission. For re-use permission, please contact copyright@csps.com
A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2011 edition of Education Week

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Recruiting and Retaining a More Diverse Teaching Workforce
We discuss the importance of workforce diversity and learn strategies to recruit and retain teachers from diverse backgrounds.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
Student Well-Being Webinar Boosting Teacher and Student Motivation During the Pandemic: What It Takes
Join Alyson Klein and her expert guests for practical tips and discussion on how to keep students and teachers motivated as the pandemic drags on.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Holistic Approach to Social-Emotional Learning
Register to learn about the components and benefits of holistically implemented SEL.
Content provided by Committee for Children

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Principal
Meredith, New Hampshire
Inter-Lakes School District
Elementary Principal
Washington State
Wenatchee School District
Principal
Meredith, New Hampshire
Inter-Lakes School District
Elementary Principal
Washington State
Wenatchee School District

Read Next

Law & Courts Accused Texas School Shooter to Remain at State Hospital
Doctors say the student accused of fatally shooting 10 people at a Texas high school in 2018 remains incompetent to stand trial.
1 min read
Santa Fe High School freshman, Jai Gillard writes messages on each of the 10 crosses representing victims in front the school in Santa Fe, Texas on May 21, 2018.
Santa Fe High School freshman, Jai Gillard writes messages on each of the 10 crosses representing victims in front the school in Santa Fe, Texas on May 21, 2018.
Steve Gonzales/Houston Chronicle via AP
Law & Courts School District Asks U.S. Supreme Court to Decide Scope of Transgender Student Rights
A Virginia district appeals a ruling in the case involving Gavin Grimm's effort to use a restroom consistent with his gender identity.
3 min read
Transgender student Gavin Grimm challenged a policy of the Gloucester County, Va., school board that barred him from using the men's restroom. The school board has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.
Transgender student Gavin Grimm challenged a policy of the Gloucester County, Va., school board that barred him from using the men's restroom. The school board has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.
Kristen Zeis/The Daily Press via AP
Law & Courts 3 Years Later, Parkland School Shooting Trial Still in Limbo
It's been more than 1,000 days since a gunman with an AR-15 rifle burst into a Florida high school, killed 17 people, and wounded 17 others.
4 min read
Magaly Newcomb, right, comforts her daughter Haley Newcomb, 14, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, at a memorial outside the school in Parkland, Fla on Feb. 18, 2018. It’s been more than 1,000 days since a gunman with an AR-15 rifle burst into the school, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others.
Magaly Newcomb, right, comforts her daughter Haley Newcomb, 14, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, at a memorial outside the school in Parkland, Fla on Feb. 18, 2018. It’s been more than 1,000 days since a gunman with an AR-15 rifle burst into the school, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others.
Gerald Herbert/AP
Law & Courts Judge: District Had No Duty to Flag Danger From Student in Parkland Shootings
A Florida judge said the Broward County school district cannot be held liable for failing to predict actions that were beyond its control.
2 min read
Law enforcement officers block off the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 15, 2018 in Parkland, Fla., following a deadly shooting at the school.
Law enforcement officers block off the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 15, 2018 in Parkland, Fla., following a deadly shooting at the school.
Wilfredo Lee/AP