Mom in school residency case asks that it be dropped

May 12, 2011 4:49:04 AM PDT
A homeless single mother charged with intentionally enrolling her son in the wrong Connecticut school district asked prosecutors on Wednesday to drop the case so school officials can handle the matter administratively.

Tanya McDowell deserves to be treated the same as 26 other families who were caught this year for doing the same thing in Norwalk schools, said her lawyer, Darnell Crosland.

The other out-of-town children who were put into Norwalk schools were sent back to their hometown districts, but none of their parents were arrested.

McDowell's case and another mother's nine-day incarceration recently in Ohio have raised questions about uneven enforcement of school residency rules nationwide, particularly as many school districts are cracking down in tight budget times.

In the Ohio case, nearly 50 out-of-town parents were caught sending their children to a high-performing suburban school district, but only an Akron resident - like McDowell, a low-income, black single mother - was criminally charged.

McDowell, 33, returned to Norwalk Superior Court on Wednesday.

She is charged with felony first-degree larceny and conspiracy to commit the crime for allegedly stealing $15,686 in educational services from Norwalk schools. She has pleaded not guilty.

Crosland is asking prosecutors to drop the charges and, in effect, turn back the clock by giving McDowell a chance to go through the administrative hearings that Norwalk schools and other districts conduct for such cases.

Although Crosland and prosecutors did not reach a resolution Wednesday, he believes they are "walking toward the right direction."

"I'm optimistic that once cooler heads prevail, equity will prevail," Crosland said.

McDowell attended Wednesday's court hearing, but did not comment.

McDowell did not go through Norwalk's administrative hearing process because housing authority officials, not the school district, brought the residency case to prosecutors after discovering she was using her baby sitter's address.

The housing authority also evicted McDowell's baby sitter and the sitter's two children.

Prosecutors say McDowell told housing authority investigators that she lived in Bridgeport and that she never claimed to be homeless. McDowell has said she splits her time between living in a van, staying some nights at a friend's home in Bridgeport and staying in a Norwalk shelter.

Her attorney said Wednesday they believe they can prove McDowell is truly homeless, and that they hope her son can re-enroll in Norwalk schools under federal laws governing how and where education is provided for homeless children.

He is finishing kindergarten in Bridgeport and living with relatives there, though Crosland said McDowell often is there, too, to spend as much time as possible with him.

"Her son is having nightmares right now. He worries that every time she goes to court, she might not come home," Crosland said.

The 5-year-old cannot understand the complexity of the charges and thinks his mother literally stole the entire school, building and all, he said.

Also Wednesday, the founder of the Connecticut Parents Union education advocacy group submitted a petition to prosecutors of more than 15,700 signatures collected online from people asking authorities to drop the charges. Gwen Samuel said she counted people from 78 Connecticut municipalities among the signatures.

Samuel said a case worker is helping McDowell write her resume and use email for her job hunt, and that she is high on the waiting list for public housing in Stamford. Getting a felony conviction for the Norwalk enrollment case could curb her chances at getting that apartment, though, Samuel said.

"I sympathize with the taxpayer who is concerned about wasteful spending, but you have to ask the question, is prosecuting her spending your taxpayer dollars even more inefficiently?" Samuel said.

The Connecticut branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is asking a judge to move McDowell's case to Stamford.

Its leaders point to Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia's critical public comments against McDowell. They also say there might be a conflict of interest because Moccia's daughter, Suzanne Vieaux, is the supervisory assistant state's attorney handling McDowell's case.

Crosland had also asked to have the case moved to another courthouse but said Wednesday he has tabled that issue for now.

He said Vieaux has handled the case professionally and without bias, though he added the case wouldn't "be harmed any more or any less" by a move to another courthouse.

Vieaux was in court proceedings and not immediately available for comment later Wednesday.

McDowell returns to court June 7.

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