Tanya McDowell, the Bridgeport woman arrested two weeks ago on a charge of enrolling her son at Brookside Elementary School in Norwalk, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to stealing $15,000 in educational services.
McDowell, who faces up to 20 years in jail on first-degree larceny and conspiracy charges, appeared before Judge Bruce Hudock at an arraignment in state Superior Court in Norwalk. McDowell's new attorney Darnell Crosland, recently appointed by the NAACP, requested that Norwalk's supervisory Assistant State's Attorney Suzanne Vieux dismiss the charges. He's also requesting that the venue be changed to another court. McDowell's next court date is May 11.
Before the arraignment hearing, McDowell was flanked by NAACP leaders at a news conference organized by parent advocate Gwen Samuel of the newly formed Connecticut Parents Union. "We are 1,000 percent behind Tanya," Scot Esdaile, president of the Connecticut State Conference of NAACP Branches, said to a large crew of national and regional reporters, photographers and cameramen.
With the nod of her attorney, McDowell spoke briefly to the reporters, mainly about her son. "He has a lot of questions about why he was kicked out of Brookside. He thinks I stole Brookside from him."
Samuel and Crosland said McDowell is homeless and that a federal law, the McKinney-Vento Act, allows parents in her situation to keep her child in the same school even if they don't live in a district.
"Tanya lacked a fixed address," said Samuel. "We have to make sure that this law is applied appropriately, especially during a recession." Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia and the Board of Education refute that McDowell was homeless and said she testified in housing court that she lived in Bridgeport.
Crosland focused on the lack of procedure by the school district when she moved from Brookside to Bridgeport. "There was no process when she moved schools other than a phone call."
He also said McDowell's other arrests on charges of drug possession and breach of peace, which are still pending, have "no relevance at all to this his case."
Esdaile had a message for Moccia, "You need to be a leader of conscious." The police department, the housing authority and the criminal justice system "dropped the ball on this one," he said. "There has been an abuse of power here."
Esdaile also said McDowell was stripped searched after her arrest. "This is absolutely absurd. What were they looking for, the education that she stole?" Police Chief Rilling denies that McDowell was strip searched took place and plans to release the tape as proof.
When asked by a reporter whether it was a conflict of interest that the prosecutor is Moccia's daughter, Crosland said he thought Vieux would address the case "appropriately" but said he has requested a change of venue.
This is the first time a parent has been arrested for out-of district enrollment in Norwalk. "We can't be so pressed for money that we are arresting parents," said Samuel. "Couldn't the city have the breaks on this case to do what is best for the child?"
Shirley Mosby, an officer of the Norwalk Chapter of the NAACP and a former Norwalk Board of Education member, was at the press conference and said, "We dealt with out-of-district cases before, but I've never seen anything like this. This is about a child and not the time for setting examples."
Follow updates on the Tanya McDowell case on TheDailyNorwalk.com.
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