America is the land of the free and the home of the brave in theory. A land of opportunity for all also must be theoretical. In Connecticut, an African American mother was arrested this past week for attempting to get her son an education. The reason for the arrest, according to authorities, was because she was homeless. Tanya McDowell, a 33-year-old homeless woman whose last known address was in Bridgeport, Conn., is now being charged with larceny and conspiracy to commit larceny for allegedly stealing $15,686 from Norwalk schools — a district she did not live in.
According to prosecutors, this is the cost of her son’s education at Norwalk’s Brookside Elementary School between the time he was illegally enrolled in January and McDowell’s arrest on April 14. If convicted, she faces up to 20 years in prison. In essence, her crime was enrolling her son in another town.
“I had no idea, whatsoever, that if you enroll your child in another school district, it becomes a crime,” said McDowell. After hearing McDowell’s testimony, Norwalk Supervisory Assistant State’s Attorney Suzanne Vieux, aware of what might have been a fraud perpetrated by McDowell, persuaded Judge Bruce Hudock to sign an arrest warrant authorizing McDowell’s arrest.
Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia, defended the arrest, saying McDowell used a friend’s public housing address to enroll her son at Brookside Elementary School. “This is not a poor, picked-upon homeless person,” Moccia said. “This is an ex con, and, somehow, the city of Norwalk is made into the ogre in this. She has a checkered past at best,” refering to McDowell’s prior arrest for possession of marijuana and narcotics and an 18-month prison term in 2001 for robbery and weapons offenses.
The Norwalk Public Schools officials released a statement that indicated McDowell testified that she and her son actually lived at 66 Priscilla Circle in Bridgeport, Conn. But that “she did not testify, at that time, that she was homeless,” the statement read. The statement also read, “The Norwalk Public Schools fully complies with the McKinney-Vento Act, which requires public schools to provide education for homeless students,” the statement concluded. “In this case, according to her own testimony, Ms. McDowell and her son reside in Bridgeport, and we are aware of no evidence that she or her son is homeless.”
So much for putting children first. To help pay for any possible restitution, Gwen Samuel, the founder of the Meriden-based Connecticut Parents Union, has started a drive in support of McDowell. –torrance t. stephens, phd