The prosecutors' office at state on Wednesday was presented with an online petition asking them to drop larceny charges against a woman accused of improperly enrolling her child in a Norwalk public school.
Gwen Samuel, chair and founder of a small citizens group, the Connecticut Parents Union, called a news conference in front of the courthouse to announce that she was handing in a 310-page printout of the petition, which has 15,700 "signatures" gathered online. The number of signatures was still growing, she said, and had reached 16,100 by Wednesday morning, after the printout was made.
"Arresting parents is not the answer to addressing our education crisis," Samuel told reporters. McDowell says she's homeless and has often been living in Norwalk, although police and the prosecutor's office say she really lives in Bridgeport. Instead of arresting her, Samuel said, authorities "should've just taken her aside, given her an administrative hearing, and just talked with her."
The petition, posted online at the Change.org website, was started April 23 by Anthony Crisci of Norwalk. It not only calls on the charges against McDowell "a disgrace," but for the prosecutor, supervising Assistant State's Attorney Suzanne Vieux, to resign because "Vieux is wasting taxpayer money and causing great embarrassment to the city of Norwalk."
Samuel said she herself was not asking Vieux to resign, and she added that most of the comments from people who signed the petition suggested that a resignation was not what they were interested in. An employee at the prosecutor's office on Wednesday said Vieux was refusing to comment on the matter as long as the case is pending.
Soon after the news conference, Samuel handed the petition to Assistant State's Attorney Tiffany Lockshier. According to Samuel, Lockshear told her that Vieux was in chambers with a judge but would be given the document.
McDowell in the courthouse
Samuel presented her petition on the day that McDowell was scheduled for her second court appearance on the charges.
Instead of appearing in court, however, McDowell, wearing a black-and-white checkered shirt and jeans, showed up at the courthouse with two officials from the Stamford and state NAACP organizations, each smartly dressed in a suit and tie. They stood together in the courthouse hallway for about 90 minutes. At 11:18 a.m., after consulting in a corner with her lawyer and the two men, she hugged them and walked out the back door, unnoticed by the television camera crews outside the front entrance.
Her attorney, Darnell D. Crosland, later told reporters that he had met with the prosecutor, supervising Assistant State's Attorney Suzanne Vieux, and Judge Bruce Hudock in the judge's chambers. Hudock had allowed McDowell to leave without appearing in the courtroom, and gave her a new court date: June 7. After the conference in chambers, Crosland appeared before Hudock in court on behalf of other clients, then left the courtroom without the case being mentioned.
Crosland said that during the meeting he and Vieux had requested more information about the case from each other. Crosland said he specifically asked for McDowell's notarized statement to Norwalk Public Schools officials which informed them her son was a resident of Norwalk.
Accusations and defense
McDowell was charged April 14 with first-degree larceny in the case. She also faces a charge of breach of peace and drug-selling charges. Crosland is representing her in each case.
In interviews last month, McDowell said that she had been called by a school district official and told to remove her boy from , where he was in a pre-kindergarten class. But district officials say that they have a policy of sending letters to parents in these situations, and that they inform parents that they have the right to appeal a decision to remove the students.
Norwalk Public Schools, like school districts across the state, has a designated employee in charge of following the federal McKinney Vento Act, which offers broad protections for homeless children in school.
Crosland said in an interview Wednesday that McDowell was homeless under the broad definition of homelessness in McKinney Vento, and that the law also allowed her to keep her child in the school system.
The state first-degree larceny charge, a felony, is based on parts of the law that prohibit theft of public services of more than $2,500, Crosland said. The attorney said that education is an "inherently free" service that should not fall under the public services provision of the law.
McDowell has been treated so far with much more severity than the families of 26 other students that the school district says it removed from the schools because they lived outside Norwalk, Crosland said. Apparently the difference arose because the McDowell case came up after a Norwalk Housing Authority investigation rather than a school district investigation, he said.
"Unlike the other cases [...] Ms. McDowell does have federal protections" in the McKinney Vento Act, so her case for keeping her child in Norwalk would be even stronger than the other 26, he said.
Samuel's news conference
Samuel read the petition during her morning news conference (see attached video), and also made the point that a total of 29 children had been removed from Norwalk public schools in the past school year because of various efforts to prevent out-of-district students from improperly attending them.
In addition to McDowell's child leaving the Norwalk school system, and the 26 other children who were removed after district officials investigated their cases, there are two other children who have been wrongly removed, she said.
When Norwalk Housing Authority officials learned that a notarized statement submitted by McDowell to school officials had listed Ana Marquez's apartment in the Roodner Court public housing complex as the residence of McDowell's child, the housing authority took Marquez to Norwalk Housing Court to evict her. Marquez and her two children are now in a Bridgeport homeless shelter, Samuel said.
In an arrest warrant affidavit, a police detective said McDowell had stated in Norwalk Housing Court that she lived in Bridgeport. McDowell has said she was allowed to sleep at a home on Priscilla Circle in Bridgeport. Unde the McKinney Vento Act, that arrangement would mean she is still considered homeless. Crosland said Wednesday that McDowell still is living in similarly precarious circumstances, without a true home. She has been on a waiting list for public housing in Norwalk for two years, he said.
Samuel said she understood the concerns of Norwalk taxypayers about paying for the education of students who didn't live in the district, yet the solution to the problem was not to remove children, but rather bring up the quality of education in schools in places like Bridgeport, from which families flee to districts like the one in Norwalk.
Enforcing residency requirements won't stop the practice, she said, because parents feel so strongly about sending their kids to good schools that they will just get sneakier about it.
Crosland said McDowell's son is hearing about the case against his mother and has been confused and upset about it. He worries that when she goes to court she won't be allowed back home, and with phrases like "stealing an education" being used by many, the boy has thought she was in trouble "for stealing the school."