"Education by zip code" is the law of the land for public school students—a free education based on where their families reside—but it's a law that finds uneven and occasionally outrageous enforcement, say those who oppose some localities' efforts to arrest people they deem to be offenders.
In early March, Gwen Samuel, president and founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, will host a parent field trip to meet with U.S. Department of Education officials in Washington to make their concerns known.
They join a national coalition fighting to decriminalize school residency laws, objecting to "the criminal prosecution of parents due to school residency laws inhibiting parental choice in the public education system," as explained in an email Samuel sent Feb. 13 to Duncan and the education department's office for civil rights.
Samuel tells me that she expects about a dozen people to attend, including parents who were arrested, or threatened with arrest. Those who cannot attend but want to weigh in will have conferencing abilities, she said.
Among the high-profile cases she points to are:
- Kelley Williams-Bolar, an Akron, Ohio woman who went to jail for nine days for wrongfully enrolling her children in a safer, nearby school district, and is now a parent union organizer herself;
- Hamlet Garcia, a Philadelphian who, with his wife, faces "criminal theft of services" charges;
- Annette Callahan, an Illinois mother threatened with arrest, though her children attended school in the community where her ex-husband, who shared custody, resided;
- Marie Menard, a grandmother and long-time resident of Stratford, Conn. nabbed for sending her grandchildren to the school in her town. They started attending the school when Menard's daughter lived with her, and continued to attend after she moved out.
Menard, who hired her own attorney to handle the district's complaint, recently completed paying $19,500 restitution to Stratford, according to Josephine Miller, attorney for the Connecticut Parents Union. The union is representing Menard in a separate lawsuit filed in Connecticut Superior Court on July 18, 2011 against the Stratford Board of Education and then-superintendent Irene Cornish, who retired at the end of 2012. In the suit, Miller argued that Menard's arrest violated her rights to equal protection and due process, and that it represented "intentional infliction of emotional distress."
In a subsequent motion for summary judgment filed in federal district court in Connecticut on Sept. 17, 2012 against the same parties, Miller provided further details of the case and asked for a jury to hear the matter, which has been reassigned to a new judge. They are now waiting for his decision.
"We will be asking for monetary compensation for Mrs. Menard, for the emotional distress she suffered at the hands of the school district. She had to spend money out of her pocket—$8,000 to hire a private attorney, and the monies she has had to pay out of pocket for restitution. All of those are monetary damages the jury might conceivably give her," Miller said.
"The hope is that, if the district is required to pay them a monetary amount, it will make them think twice about doing this to anyone else," Miller added.
Samuel of the Connecticut Parents Union explains why her organization became involved: "We took that case because we wanted to show it affected everyone," she said. While she believes parents of color are disproportionately prosecuted in these "education by zip code" cases, Menard is white. "This isn't a blue collar issue or a white collar issue. It's a parent collar issue," Samuel said.