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Mom Charged With Enrolling Son in Norwalk School

A homeless woman from Bridgeport was arrested last week on charges of sending her 5-year-old son to Brookside Elementary School in Norwalk. Tanya McDowell, 33, was charged with first-degree larceny because police estimate the education services she allegedly stole cost taxpayers a total of $15,686.

The district tries to make certain that Norwalk schools aren't educating “out-of-district” students. Residents, too, want to make sure that their tax dollars are spent on Norwalk children only, especially during budget crunches. But for the first time in Norwalk, an arrest was made in such a case. Mayor Richard Moccia said it will “send a message” to other parents. The story has received national attention on news websites such as TheHuffingtonPost.com . Earlier this year, an Ohio mother, Kelley Williams-Bolar , made national news when she was also arrested for sending her child to another school district and faced similar charges.

The Norwalk case was handled by the police department, which received a tip from an attorney who works for the Norwalk Housing Authority. School officials have not been involved. “I do not know a lot of details about this situation,” Superintendent Susan Marks wrote in an email. Bruce Morris, the school system’s human relations officer who usually helps identify “out-of-district” children, said, “I don’t know how it got to the point of an arrest."

Out-of-district cases are normally handled administratively not criminally, says Ronald Harris, an attorney with the state Department of Education. “[Norwalk] is not the only district that deals with issues of residency. Many of the suburbs near the big cities face the same issue. They use the administrative process. Arrests are not used.”

McDowell apparently has no fixed address, according to police documents. A man she knows in Bridgeport let her spend nights at his house. Sometimes she stays at the Open Door Shelter in South Norwalk.

McDowell paid a babysitter, Ana Marques, who lived in South Norwalk's Roodner Court housing complex, $100 a week to look after her son from 3 to 6 p.m. McDowell used the babysitter's address as her permanent address to enroll her son at Brookside. The boy was at Brookside for five months, until Jan. 19.

Before this, McDowell had been arrested twice by the Norwalk Police in the past year. In November, she was arrested on drug charges, and in February, she was arrested and charged with two counts of second-degree breach of peace after allegedly threatening her babysitter. At the time of her arrests, McDowell acknowledged that she lives in Bridgeport.

In January, Marques was evicted by the Norwalk Housing Authority for violating her lease by helping McDowell get documents to enroll her son at Brookside.

Typically, if a student is identified out of district by a school principal, Morris will send an outreach worker to track down the parents’ residence. “In some cases, parents acknowledge that they don’t live in Norwalk and go back to their home district,” he says. The district has one full-time and two part-time outreach workers. Morris says he doesn’t know the number of out-of-district cases the outreach workers have investigated, but he said the district is tracking the number this year.

In past cases, for parents who don’t leave voluntarily, the district has hired private investigators to collect information for a hearing. Pending a hearing, the student can continue in the district. “Hiring an investigator can be costly, and we haven’t done it recently,” says Morris. He does not know how many hearings have taken place in recent years. He said the assistant superintendent usually oversees the hearing process.

“At the hearing, the burden of proof is on the parent to prove residency,” says Harris.

Staff reporter Nancy Chapman contributed to this story.

Note:  A previous version of this story used the name Tonya McDowell .  The correct name is Tanya McDowell.

What do you think of the arrest? How do you think out-of-district cases should be handled?

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