School should readmit girl ruled nonresident, Howard leaders say Baltimore man offers to secure her tuition

October 30, 1998|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

A decision by Howard County school officials to kick out a student who didn't meet their unusually tough residency requirements provoked sharp criticism yesterday -- and prompted a stranger's offer to help 16-year-old Danielle Rash.

Officials and community leaders from the county executive to the head of the county's Domestic Violence Center said school officials should readmit Danielle, who left a volatile home life in West Virginia to live in western Howard with her aunt, who is now the girl's legal guardian.

Danielle's plight, reported yesterday in The Sun, also drew the attention of a Baltimore resident who told the girl's lawyer he would secure the more than $6,000 tuition school officials want to charge her for returning to Glenelg High School.

"I'm happy," Danielle said yesterday after hearing of the offer from the man, who asked the lawyer to remain anonymous. "I almost started crying, I was so happy."

But critics of the county's decision said Danielle shouldn't have been forced to withdraw in mid-October. Even two school board members said the system should be flexible.

And other area school districts reported that a person in Danielle's position would meet their requirements, especially in light of a 1997 state law that seems to support her right to go to school where her guardian lives.

"Howard County used to be, if you have legal custody of the child, the child can go to school here," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker. "I think that's the way it should be."

The two candidates for county executive agreed.

"Once the court has granted custody and legal status to an aunt, uncle, grandparent, whomever, that should be good enough, I think," Democrat James N. Robey said.

"Given that she's a potential victim I would give her the benefit of the doubt," said Republican Dennis R. Schrader, a County Council member. "Let her stay while we continue to investigate."

School officials said Danielle should return to the home of her mother and stepfather in West Virginia, or pay tuition. They said she couldn't prove her allegations of abuse, even though a Howard circuit judge granted the family's wish and made Danielle's aunt -- a Glenelg High cafeteria worker -- her legal guardian in August.

Judy Clancy, director of the Domestic Violence Center, said the county's actions are unfair.

One "thing that bothers me about this is here's a family that's being penalized for finding their own solution to a difficult situation. You know, they're not running to social service agencies. They're not asking for all kinds of help. They found their own solution. The stepfather doesn't want her. It's a potentially abusive situation," Clancy said.

"Even if there hasn't yet been physical abuse, emotional abuse can be devastating. That kind of abuse takes a lot longer to heal than physical abuse and can have very long-term effects on a child," Clancy said.

Clancy referred to the document Danielle's aunt, Wendie Varnell, submitted to the judge, alleging that the girl's stepfather won't let her return and was at times verbally and emotionally abusive and "physically threatening."

Eleven days after Varnell became her guardian, Danielle began attending Glenelg under a temporary arrangement while the school system investigated the case. Meetings with Danielle, Varnell and Danielle's mother followed, after which school officials said they needed more proof Danielle was at risk, such as a report from social services or police.

School officials defended their actions again yesterday.

"We have an obligation to the students and the taxpayers of Howard County to educate only those kids who belong to the school system," said Stephen C. Bounds, school board chairman.

"There are hundreds if not thousands of students from surrounding jurisdictions who would love to come here," he said. "We have to be very vigilant to keep the system for the students who are here. There are a lot of people who will try all sorts of subterfuge to get their kids into Howard County schools."

He would not talk about Danielle specifically.

"We have a quasi-judicial function in the appeal process," Bounds said. "So board members really have to not become involved in those kinds of situations because we may have to sit in judgment on them."

Patti Caplan, the schools' public information officer, said the county made its policy stricter in 1991.

"As early as 1991 we were beginning to note that there were a lot more of these cases than we had had previously," she said. She said the school has not kept statistics on the numbers of cases per year.

Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, who signed Danielle's guardianship document, said yesterday that in such cases he does not determine residency or require a tuition waiver.

Several years ago, he said, school officials told him and another judge that the schools were crowded and people were using guardianship papers to gain unfair entry. They asked the judges to include a clause leaving residency issues up to them.

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