Tanya McDowell, a homeless woman recently arrested for stealing educational services from Norwalk Public Schools, says she's done nothing wrong:
"I'm still in shock," she said in an interview Monday afternoon. "What did I do wrong? I just want the best for my kid. It's like any mom or any dad out there."
McDowell was arrested April 15 by Norwalk Police on a charge of first-degree larceny on an accusation that she stole educational services from the school district by enrolling her child in Brookside Elementary School last September when she was living outside Norwalk.
"I just want to know: When does it become a crime to seek a better education for your child?" McDowell said. In the interview, she responded to Mayor Richard A. Moccia's statement that she is not homeless by saying, "What is the definition of homeless? I don't have a key. That's being homeless to me."
The McKinney Vento Act, which gives certain legal rights to homeless students in public schools, states, "The term 'homeless children and youths' means individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence ..." (Section 725 (2) A)
It expands on that definition, in part, by also defining "homeless" as including "children and youths who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason ..." (Section 725 (2) B)
In the arrest warrant affidavit, Norwalk Police Detective Mark T. Edwards wrote that McDowell "advised [him] that she stays in the Norwalk homeless shelter from time to time with her five year old."
McDowell also told him that a friend at 66 Priscilla Circle in Bridgeport would let her stay overnight there, but that she was not allowed to be in the home during the day, and that she was staying there in September 2010 when she enrolled her boy in the Norwalk public school system.
At the end of the arrest warrant application, Edwards wrote (misspelling Tanya's first name): "The undersigned respectfully requests that a judge of the Norwalk Superior Court issue an arrest warrant for Tonya McDowell [...] no fixed address."
Any family living outside a school district generally needs permission from the school district to have the district educate a child in one of the district's schools. One exception to that rule are some circumstances related to homeless families.
According to the federal McKinney Vento Act, they may enroll children in the school district in which the child and family are usually located or where the child was already going to school.
Louis Tallarita, the state's leading official in charge of monitoring local compliance with the McKinney Vento Act, said school districts are obligated to keep a homeless child in school in the district if there is a dispute about whether the child should be schooled in that district or in another one. Tallarita said that although he was aware of the McDowell case, he didn't have enough direct information from Norwalk school officials to be able to comment on that specific case yet.
Norwalk Public Schools officials have said in interviews with other news organizations that McDowell never told them she was homeless, and they only learned about her family's homelessness after she was arrested. McDowell said that school officials she spoke with did know that she was homeless.
Under the McKinney Vento Act, school districts are required to try to find homeless students in their schools. Tallarita said that it could be reasonable to ask parents who are being told their children must leave the district because school authorities don't believe they're residents to ask if the family is homeless or to try to find out. He said he didn't have enough information to say whether or not that should have been done in McDowell's case.
Tallarita said that under Connecticut regulations for school districts, a student's parents are supposed to be given an opportunity to dispute a school district's decision about the education of that child.
McDowell said the only communication she received from Norwalk Public Schools was someone calling her to tell her that her child was being removed from Brookside Elementary School and to ask her which district should receive the child's school transcript.should be sent.
"It was not done properly," McDowell said. "If you're going to take a child out of school, five years old, shouldn't it be in writing?" McDowell said she didn't even get a message in her child's book bag. "All I got was a phone call."
"She just said, 'Your son is no longer accepted. Please let us know what school we'll be sending the transcript to.'"
McDowell said her son thought he was kicked out of school because of something he'd done wrong. "He's thinking he's a bad kid," she said.
Because she was in the Open Door homeless shelter in Norwalk, her son was enrolled in a preschool program run by NEON in South Norwalk, she said. From there, she was told to enroll the child in another school, and she chose Brookside after speaking with other parents who had children there, she said.
McDowell said she was able to pay Ana Marquez, a resident of the Roodner Court public housing complex, a bit of money for taking care of McDowell's child after school. She denied that she paid Marquez $100 a week. "Here and there I would spot her something," she said.
Her godfather used his money to get her bonded out when she was arrested, McDowell said.
When her son was enrolled in Brookside Elementary School, McDowell signed a notarized statement that her boy lived at Marquez' apartment in Roodner Court. McDowell said she was told to sign the statement and have it notarized so that the boy would be allowed in the school, but school officials knew she was homeless and staying with a friend in Bridgeport at the time.
"I never lived at Roodner Court," she said. "They were aware of that, too. ... I just had to get something notarized."
If Norwalk school officials told her today that she could put her child back in a Norwalk public school, she would reject the offer, she said.
Attempts were made to reach several Norwalk Public Schools officials for this article. Superintendent of Schools Susan Marks was out of the office today for personal reasons, so I was referred to Tony Daddona, deputy superintendent for curriculum, and left a message with him at 11:53 a.m. It was not returned this afternoon.
Bruce V. Morris, the school system's human relations officer, spoke briefly during a bad telephone connection, then did not call back in response to a telephone message left at 12:05 p.m. Pauline Smith, director of pupil personnel services and the district's designated liason for homeless school attendance under the McKinney Vento Act, according to the state Department of Education, did not return a telephone message left early in the afternoon.
McDowell is scheduled to appear on Wednesday in state Superior Court in Norwalk. A citizens group, the Connecticut Parents Union, is scheduled to hold a news conference outside the courthouse at 17 Belden Ave. before that day's court session starts.