Girl's plans for school cut short She can't afford nonresident tuition

October 29, 1998|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Until two weeks ago, 16-year-old Danielle Rash had her life figured out. She would become photo editor of the yearbook at Glenelg High School in Howard County. Study photography at college. Join the staff of National Geographic.

But county school officials cut short her plans in mid-October, forcing her to withdraw because they say she doesn't meet residency requirements. Now, she must come up with more than $6,000 a year in tuition to return to Glenelg -- which her family says it can't afford -- or move back to a home in West Virginia she felt forced to flee.

In June, Danielle moved to Woodbine to live with her aunt, Wendie Varnell, escaping a troubled life in Mathias, W.Va., where she lived with her mother and stepfather, according to Danielle, Varnell and Varnell's attorney. Telling a Howard circuit judge that Danielle's stepfather won't let her return and was at times verbally and emotionally abusive and "physically threatening," Varnell became Danielle's legal guardian Aug. 13. Danielle began attending Glenelg on Aug. 24.

"This girl has no place to go," said Timothy S. Barkley Sr., an attorney representing Varnell. "And for the school system to say, 'Gee, sorry, this is not my problem' ignores that this girl is here legitimately. Her family situation [in W.Va.] has deteriorated to the point where she can't go home."

Danielle said she doesn't understand the school system's thinking. "They say it's a problem with residency. I just don't understand that part. I live with my aunt. She has custody."

The fact that her aunt works at Glenelg High in the cafeteria didn't help Danielle. Because Danielle has no proof that she was abused -- no letter from a police officer or social worker -- officials rescinded the approval they gave to her to attend Glenelg.

Even though Danielle is living with her legal guardian in Howard County, school officials say she is neither an approved resident nor entitled to a tuition waiver. Tuition can only be waived, they say, in the case of documented hardship such as abuse or abandonment.

Without official documentation, they say, their hands are tied and they can't help the hundreds of students like Danielle who apply for waivers every year.

"Bad situations in and of themselves don't meet the criteria," said Estes Lockhart, director of pupil services in Howard County. "Really anybody could call anything a bad situation."

"If there were only one or two of these a year it wouldn't be a big deal," he added. "There are large numbers."

In the 1997-1998 school year, Lockhart said, 677 students applied for tuition waivers. Only a small percentage were dTC granted. If the school accepted everyone who applied, he said, it would cost the taxpayers more than $3 million every year.

"The bottom line is we've got to treat everyone fairly," he said. "We have to set limits and say we must have some objective documentation."

School officials met with Danielle and her relatives several times and gave them nearly two months to provide proof of abuse. In an Oct. 5 letter to Varnell, a school official, Margaret E. Schultz, cited statements she said Varnell and Danielle's mother made during a meeting Sept. 18.

Schultz said they stated "there was really no physical abuse, only family disruption and threats of abuse. The family made no report and asked for no relief from any agency in the area where they lived."

But according to Varnell, Danielle cried and said at that meeting, "You did not live with him [her stepfather]. You do not know what I went through."

And Danielle's mother, Dawn L. Call, told officials her husband would not let Danielle back in the house, according to Varnell and to a statement signed by Call Oct. 6. "That is why I gave my permission for my sister, Wendy Varnell, to obtain legal custody of Danielle," Call wrote.

"I was afraid she was going to give up," Call said last night, describing the tense relationship between her daughter and her husband. "Just because I chose this life doesn't mean she has to." Call said her husband was not home to comment.

Danielle's biological father lives in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. He never married her mother, she said, and she did not know about him or meet him until earlier this year.

Lockhart said he wishes the school system could accept every child who wanted to attend. But he said officials have a duty to taxpayers.

"We're mainly idealists," he said. "We came in this to help children. But we can't make someone go get the right documentation."

Barkley said he planned to send a letter to Lockhart to appeal the decision. If that fails, the family will appeal to Michael E. Hickey, Howard superintendent of schools. A lawsuit is possible, he said.

Danielle wrote to Gov. Parris N. Glendening for help, and received a reply Oct. 16 from Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools. Grasmick said residency issues are the responsibility of local school systems.

Steven Wilson, principal of East Hardy High School in West Virginia, which Danielle attended, said confidentiality laws prevent him from talking about Danielle specifically. But he seemed incredulous that a school system would treat a student this way.

"I can't imagine a public school system turning anybody away," he said. "What do they do with those children who are not in school?"

Danielle passes the time baby-sitting for family members, reading, drawing and going over schoolwork from August and September. She said she misses homework.

"When you do it all the time, it may seem hideous or something," she said. "But when you don't do it for a long time and you know you're good at it, and when you know you can, it's frustrating."

Pub Date: 10/29/98

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