Heartbraking Tales of Mothers in Jail for Sending Their Kids into Better School Districts

Posted on Wednesday, 19th October 2011 @ 02:10 PM by Text Size A | A | A

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20 Years in Prison for Sending Your Kids to the Wrong School? Inequality in School Systems Leads Parents to Big Risks

    By Rania Khalek, AlterNet


kindergartener A.J. Paches was kicked out of Brookside Elementary
School earlier this year because his homeless mother used a friend’s
address to register him in the wealthy district of Norwalk, Connecticut.
After forcing A.J. out, Norwalk authorities charged his mother
first-degree larceny  for enrolling her son under a false address, a
felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. 

Sadly, A.J.’s
story is not unique. He is one of several low-income students whose
parents use the residence of a relative or friend to provide their
children with educational opportunities that are severely lacking in
poor districts.  Meanwhile,
wealthy school districts are cracking down hard on these families,
going to extreme lengths to identify, force out, and increasingly
prosecute the parents of kids like AJ. 
In the
recession era of budget deficits and cuts to public education, wealthy
schools want the poor kids out and there are no limits to how far they
will go to make that happen.

Bounties, Private Investigators, Tipsters, and Stakeouts

One popular method
is to offer bounties to tipsters who report students that turn out to be
illegally enrolled. As of 2008, the Bayonne Board of Education in New
Jersey offers a $100 bounty
for tips about students suspected of lying about their residency. In
the middle class suburban enclave of Clifton, New Jersey, the bounty is
set at $300 for informants that correctly report a boundary hopper.
According to the New York Times, the district immediately follows up with a visit by an “attendance officer” to the suspected students home.

In anticipation of the growing demand for residence verification, private companies like VerifyResidence.com and LiarCatchers.com
are offering their investigative services aimed directly at public
school districts. According to their website, VerifyResidence.com not
only offers residence audits, but also surveillance stakeouts by skilled
investigators using “the latest in covert video technology and digital
photographic equipment to photograph, videotape, and document subject
activity when logistically possible.”

Arrests, Felony Charges, and Jail Time

Perhaps more
shocking than the invasive surveillance techniques schools are utilizing
to identify these students, are the punishments they dish out to

Take the case of Kelley Williams-Bolar,
an African American single mother living in the housing projects of
Akron, Ohio.  She made national headlines in January when she was
convicted on two felony counts of tampering with court records and
sentenced to ten days in jail with three years probation for illegally
enrolling her kids in the predominately white and higher-quality school
district next door.

for the safety of her two daughters in the Akron school district,
Williams-Bolar used her father’s address in the nearby suburban district
of Copley-Fairlawn to enroll her children in what she believed was a
better performing and safer school environment.  In handing down what
many found to be a harsh sentence, Judge Patricia Cosgrove
specifically noted that the court was making an example out of
Williams-Bolar ”so that others who think they might defraud the school
system perhaps will think twice.”

Williams-Bolar had
been working as a teacher’s aide in the Akron city school district while
taking night classes to earn a teaching degree.  Two felony convictions
would likely have jeopardized a future teaching career.  Fortunately,
Ohio Governor John Kasich intervened by reducing her charges to
misdemeanors, calling it “a second chance” rather than a pass. However, other parents facing similar circumstances haven’t been as lucky.

In April, The Stamford Advocate,
a local Connecticut paper, reported that 33-year-old Tanya McDowell, a
homeless single mother of color from Bridgeport, Connecticut, was
arrested for registering her 5-year-old son for kindergarten in the
affluent school district of Norwalk by using the address of her son’s
after-school babysitter, Ana Rebecca Marquez. McDowell
is currently facing up to 20 years in prison for first-degree larceny
and conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny along with a $15,000 fine,
which is supposedly to reimburse Norwalk for the cost of educating her

McDowell’s charges, Norwalk Mayer Richard Moccia said, “This now sends a
message to other parents that may have been living in other towns and
registering their kids with phony addresses,” suggesting that the reason
for the prosecution has more to do with making an example out of
McDowell than seeking restitution or justice.

In the meantime,
McDowell’s son, now 6, is staying with his grandmother while his mother
is in jail awaiting trial. McDowell is receiving support from both the
NAACP and the Connecticut Parents Union (CTPU), an education advocacy group that serves to amplify the voices of parents in the school’s decision-making process.

Gwendolyn Samuel,
founder of CTPU, told me that Ana Marquez, the babysitter who allowed
McDowell to use her address, “got hit the hardest.” After the Norwalk
Housing Authority evicted Marquez for fraud, her two young children,
ages 4 and 6, were removed from her custody by the Department of
Children and Family Services for an entire week.  The family was then
left homeless, shuffling from shelter to shelter for months.  Meanwhile,
the housing authority seized Marquez’s household belongings, which it
has yet to return.

Due to the trauma
endured by Marquez and her small children, who are now living with
relatives in Florida, the CTPU has filed a lawsuit against the Norwalk
Housing Authority on their behalf.  Samuel is adamant about assisting
Marquez in seeking damages from the housing authority for their reckless
handling of her case.

“What Norwalk
allowed to happen to Ana is why I get up every morning and do what I
do,” says Samuel.  “She used her address to give a five-year-old boy
access to good crayons and books and you arrest her for that?”

Samuel believes that McDowell’s desperation, while tragic, was predictable given Connecticut’s achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent counterparts, which is the highest in the country.

That is why the CTPU also supports Ana Wade and her mother Marie Menard,
who were arrested last October for first-degree larceny and conspiracy
for registering Wade’s two children in the Stratford school district
where Menard lives.  However, this case is slightly more complicated
than the others because the children were in fact living with their
grandmother during the school week while spending the weekends with
their mother in her Milford, Connecticut home.

In August the CTPU assisted Menard in filing a civil lawsuit
against the Stratford superintendent and board of education for
violating the state’s equal protection laws because the two women were
singled out for arrest while the vast majority of other parents caught
for the same violation were simply asked to leave the district.

According to
Samuel, CTPU has been tirelessly working to pass a legislative amendment
that would prohibit the arrest of parents who lie about where they live
to provide their children with a better education.  

Educational Inequality At the Heart of This Debate

The striking
disparities in school quality between rich and poor neighborhoods aren’t
exactly a secret and any person who has stepped foot inside both a
wealthy suburban public school and that of an inner city would have to
be blind not to recognize the differences in class and race.  But for
those who haven’t, the willingness of parents to risk breaking the law
to send their kids to better schools should serve as a window into the
inequalities that permeate the American public school system. And hiring
detectives to videotape kids at the bus stop and throwing parents in
jail is not going to change that.



Rania Khalek is an associate writer for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @RaniaKhalek.

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