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 kindergartner 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 larceny.
Prosecutors said 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 United States.
"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 NAACP. 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 also faces pending drug charges.
Connecticut students can attend public schools only in the municipality where their parents or guardians reside, unless they go to a magnet school, charter school or another district under a desegregation plan.
Gwen Samuel, of Meriden, one of McDowell's supporters and founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, said she would do the same thing as McDowell. "I would use the janitor's address to get my kid a good education; that's not even negotiable," she said.