Tanya McDowell thought by enrolling her son at a Norwalk elementary school, he would have a better life than she did. "The school was better than the one in Bridgeport," says McDowell. "I want the best for my child. There's nothing I wouldn't do for him. I think a lot of parents in my situation would have done the same."
McDowell, 33, is charged with first-degree larceny for allegedly stealing more than $15,000 — the average amount it takes to educate a child per year in Norwalk. McDowell allegedly used her babysitter's address at Roodner Court, a Norwalk Housing Authority complex, to enroll her son at Brookside Elementary School. McDowell, who is originally from Bridgeport but has no fixed residence, is an unemployed single mother. She currently stays with a friend in Bridgeport but has also stayed at the Open Door Shelter in South Norwalk.
When the Norwalk police arrested McDowell last Thursday, she had no idea why. "I kept asking, 'What did I do?' " she says in an interview outside the offices of Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now, or NEON, overlooking the big chessboard in Ryan Park. It wasn't until she arrived at the police station that she learned of the charges. McDowell posted $25,000 bond with the help of her godfather and has her next court date April 27.
McDowell's 5-year-old son, Andrew Justin, or A.J., started kindergarten at Brookside in September and left in mid-January. "I received a call on my voicemail telling me that I had to remove A.J. from the school. No paperwork or anything, just a voicemail." McDowell says that she didn't contest the message and withdrew A.J. from Brookside. "He loved that school, his teacher and his friends," she says of A.J.'s four months at Brookside. "He never got into any trouble."
A.J. now goes to Thomas Hooker Elementary School in Bridgeport. "He kept on asking why is he going to a different school. He just didn't understand. If you could see the school where he is now compared to Brookside, you'd see why I chose Norwalk." Brookside is known in Norwalk for its strong principal and success with minority and English language learner students. A.J. is spending April vacation with his father's mother in Wallingford.
In January, McDowell's friend and frequent babysitter, Ana Marques, was evicted by the Norwalk Housing Authority for violating her lease for allegedly helping McDowell get documents to enroll her son at Brookside. "Ana and I go way back. I'm the godmother of her two kids," says McDowell, who at the time of the hearing admitted that she was from Bridgeport. "Now Ana and her kids are like me. She had to pull her kid out of Marvin and they're living with a friend in Bridgeport."
Although the Norwalk public school district has an administrative process in place to deal with out-of-district students, many residents and officials grumble that not enough is done to prevent students from Bridgeport and other towns from enrolling. The McDowell case is the first time in recent memory in which the city of Norwalk has criminally charged a parent for sending a child to a Norwalk school when they are not entitled to do so.
"There has to be a penalty for stealing our services," says school board president Jack Chiaramonte, who emphasized that the school district was not involved this case. "Right now, there is none."
Gwen Samuel, founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, has stepped in as an advocate for McDowell. "The city is trying to prove a point on the back of this mom. This is definitely political," Samuel says.
Samuel has many questions — including why McDowell is charged with stealing $15,000, the annual per pupil cost, when A.J. spent only four months at Brookside. Samuel also wants to know why the Norwalk Housing Authority was so quick to get the police involved with McDowell. "They went from 0 to 90 without any due process."
McDowell, who has attended college at Housatonic College and Lehman in the Bronx, N.Y., has been trying to improve her life. "I have gotten into some trouble," she says. She has a been arrested for drug possession and breach of peace. For the past few months, she has been a regular participant at NEON's job readiness program and is hoping to land a job in food services. "They have computers and show you how to make a good resume. They also help you to get interviews and take you to the interviews."
But her future plans are on hold as she deals with the charges. McDowell has yet to meet with her attorney, public defender Elizabeth Reid, who has been on vacation this week. "I know a lot of people who do what I did. But I've become the guinea pig," says McDowell of her predicament.
McDowell says she can't sleep and is worried that she could end up spending many years in prison. "I have dreams for A.J. He has so much personality. He wants to be a police officer."
Do you think Tanya McDowell should have been arrested?