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 baby sitter'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 McDowell used her baby sitter's address to enroll her son in Norwalk schools in the fall but should have registered the boy 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 U.S. as districts try to ensure their scarce local tax dollars are used for local students.
"He's only 5 years old and it's hard like to explain to a 5-year-old kid, you know, 'You got kicked out because we don't have a steady address yet,'" said McDowell, an unemployed cook.
McDowell, who is black, 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.
"He's very curious in regards to it because he thinks I stole Brookside away from him, like I took it away from him," said McDowell, who has a criminal record and faces pending drug charges in the same court handling the enrollment case.
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.
Many school districts have residency investigators on staff or on call, though state Department of Education officials say they have never heard of an arrest in such a case.
McDowell's case is not the nation's first. Last year, a single mother from Ohio was convicted of a felony for using her father's address to enroll her children in a suburban district rather than the larger, underperforming Akron district.
Gwen Samuel, one of McDowell's supporters and founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, said she would do the same thing.
"I would use the janitor's address to get my kid a good education; that's not even negotiable," said Samuel, of Meriden. "I don't know anyone who wouldn't do the same."
McDowell would not comment on the specifics of her case Wednesday, but she has said that she did not believe she was doing anything wrong when she enrolled her son in Norwalk.
She said she splits her time between a Norwalk shelter and her van, occasionally sleeping at a friend's Bridgeport apartment. Her son went to the baby sitter's Norwalk apartment every day after school, she said.
Bridgeport's heavily urban school district is about twice the size of Norwalk's, though both sit within Connecticut's wealthy Fairfield County. Bridgeport is significantly poorer: State figures show 95 percent of Bridgeport's students qualify for free or reduced-lunch meals because of their family incomes, compared with less than one of every three Norwalk students. Norwalk also has significantly lower dropout rates and higher test scores.
Norwalk officials have said there is far more to the story than a downtrodden single mother seeking a better education for her son.
McDowell's supporters say her son attended preschool in Norwalk and therefore qualifies to attend its public schools.
Authorities, however, say her most recent permanent address was in Bridgeport, making that his home district. They say instead of following proper procedures, McDowell lied to use the address of the baby sitter and, according to court records, wrote on the enrollment affidavit that the baby sitter was her son's legal guardian.
The baby sitter has been evicted from her public housing unit, but has not been criminally charged.
Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia told the Hartford Courant this week that the district never would have rejected a homeless student and offers extensive services for those children, but that parents must follow proper procedures.
He said he is upset at how Norwalk has been portrayed and that McDowell "has somehow become a heroine (while) the city and the prosecutor's office has become the devil incarnate." A spokeswoman from his office said Wednesday he would have no further public comments on the case.
Complicating matters is the fact that Moccia's daughter, Suzanne Vieaux, is the top prosecutor whose office is handling McDowell's case.
McDowell's attorney, Darnell Crosland, said Wednesday they will ask a judge to move the case to another courthouse to avoid the potential conflict of interest. A message left for Vieaux was not immediately returned Wednesday.
McDowell is scheduled to return to court May 11 for the school enrollment case. She will also appear before a judge that day on the unrelated case in which she was charged last November with possessing 62 small bags of marijuana and 14 of crack cocaine.
Her attorney says the drug case is unrelated to the enrollment case.
"There's no relevance to anything else at all, other than Ms. McDowell's son getting an education and staying in school," Crosland said.