In a Mother’s Case, Reminders of Educational Inequalities
NORWALK, Conn. — The tale outlined outside court by the defendant’s supporters had a heartbreaking story line — a child tossed out of school, a homeless mother charged with felony theft for the crime of sending him to a better school than the one available to her, the inequalities that define America’s schools.
But despite the torrent of angry calls and e-mails that have flooded Norwalk’s City Hall and school district as a result of the recent publicity, the case of the mother, Tanya McDowell, got only murkier on Wednesday as she pleaded not guilty to first-degree larceny and conspiracy charges stemming from accusations that she illegally sent her child to a suburban Norwalk school when he really lived in urban Bridgeport.
Ms. McDowell’s story has become something of a cause célèbre since her arrest two weeks ago; education and civil rights advocates on Wednesday harshly criticized the charges against her. Others claim the child was summarily booted out of his elementary school in an affluent neighborhood.
Yet the larger issue of access to equal education is in danger of being blurred by the far more complicated matter of just what happened to Ms. McDowell and her son, Andrew Justin Patches, a kindergartner.
What is clear is that Ms. McDowell’s story has become a window onto the gaping differences in educational quality from town to town or school to school, and the lengths that some parents will go to get the best education for their own children.
Connecticut, with its patchwork of poor cities and wealthy suburbs, has the largest achievement gap between black and white students of any state in the country. With economic distress widening and school budgets tightening, many districts are increasingly focused on making sure that enrolled students belong in the district.
“I’d do the same thing, we all would,” Gwen Samuel, founder of Connecticut Parents Union, an education advocacy group, said of Ms. McDowell’s actions. Ms. Samuels was among several supporters, including local N.A.A.C.P. officials, who turned out on Wednesday as Ms. McDowell made her first court appearance.
Ms. McDowell, 33, was arrested April 14 on felony charges of committing and attempting to commit first-degree larceny by using her baby sitter’s address to enroll her son in a Norwalk school in the fall. She could face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, if convicted, and could be ordered to pay more than $15,000 in restitution, roughly the cost of a year’s tuition in Norwalk schools.
“They went from zero to 90,” Ms. Samuel said, “without ever thinking about what they were doing to the child.”
The police began investigating Ms. McDowell after they were contacted by a lawyer for the Norwalk Housing Authority, which was in the process of evicting her baby sitter, Ana Marquez. Ms. Marquez was found to be in violation of her lease agreement, because Ms. McDowell had listed the apartment as her primary address so her son could go to Brookside Elementary School, where he attended kindergarten from September to Jan. 19.
Beyond that, much of Ms. McDowell’s story remains in dispute.
She said she received a call from the school district in January telling her to remove her child from the school. The district says that no such call was made and that she withdrew him on her own. Under federal law, Ms. McDowell would have been allowed to keep her child at Brookside had she been homeless, but officials said that she never claimed to be homeless and that they were unaware of any evidence that she was homeless while he was enrolled.
Ms. McDowell says she is now living out of a van while her son stays with relatives in Bridgeport.
Her lawyer and N.A.A.C.P. officials said Wednesday that she was subjected to a body-cavity search when she was arrested. Norwalk’s police chief, Harry W. Rilling, said that he had reviewed a videotape and that no strip-search had taken place. He said he was still awaiting permission from Ms. McDowell’s lawyer to release the tape as proof.
The chief said the charges against Ms. McDowell did not merit the attention they had received; he provided news articles of several other cases, including three in Connecticut, in which parents faced similar charges of fraud and larceny.
Aside from this case, Ms. McDowell has three other charges pending, including two serious felony charges related to a Nov. 9 arrest. The police said she was found to be in possession of 60 bags of marijuana and had 14 bags of crack cocaine stashed under a black wig she was wearing.
Her lawyer, Darnell Crosland, said her pending charges had no relevance to this case. And school officials and advocates said that whatever her personal circumstances, they did not obscure the broader disparities in Connecticut and elsewhere that led some parents to stretch the rules in the interest of their children’s education.
“Whatever the facts of this case, the challenge in the state of Connecticut and beyond is providing a quality education for all children,” said Bruce Morris, director of human relations for the Norwalk schools. “The failure of school systems to provide that is the larger issue that goes well beyond whatever happened in this case.”