NORWALK, Conn. — A homeless single mother who lives in her van pleaded not guilty Wednesday to stealing nearly $16,000 worth of education for her son by enrolling the kindergartener in her babysitter's school district.
Tanya McDowell, 33, was arraigned in Norwalk, where she was arrested April 14 on felony charges of committing and attempting to commit first-degree larceny. Prosecutors say she used her babysitter's address to enroll her son in Norwalk schools in the fall but should have registered in nearby Bridgeport, a significantly poorer urban district and the location of her last permanent address.
Officials call it the first known case of its type in Connecticut, although similar conflicts have played out elsewhere in the United States as districts try to ensure their scarce local tax dollars are used for local students.
McDowell, an unemployed cook, has drawn the support of civil rights leaders and parents' groups and is being represented by a lawyer provided by the Connecticut chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She faces up to 20 years in prison and up to $15,000 in fines if convicted of the felony larceny charge.
She said before Wednesday's arraignment that her bewildered son, A.J., repeatedly asks why he was kicked out of his school. The boy was removed from Norwalk's Brookside Elementary School in January and now lives with relatives in Bridgeport, where he attends kindergarten.
Connecticut students can only attend public schools in the municipality where their parents or guardians reside, unless they go to a magnet school, charter schools or another district under a desegregation plan. About 2,700 children in Connecticut public schools were listed last year as homeless, including many in temporary foster care or going through other custody or residency transitions.