Despite offers of help, school's still out for teen Danielle Rash's plight doesn't merit return to class, officials say

November 03, 1998|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

Despite an outpouring of sympathy and offers of financial help for a girl who can't attend school because of Howard County's residency requirements, 16-year-old Danielle Rash still has not returned to Glenelg High School.

After Danielle's plight was reported last week in The Sun, domestic violence advocates, political candidates and even County Executive Charles I. Ecker said the girl -- whose aunt in Howard became her legal guardian when Danielle left what the aunt described as a tumultuous home life in West Virginia -- should be allowed to go back to school.

An anonymous Baltimore man told the girl's lawyer he would raise the $6,570 out-of-state tuition fee the school system would charge her to return to Glenelg, but the money hasn't materialized.

Danielle's aunt, Wendie Varnell, said neither the promise of aid nor the supportive words has helped her niece.

As she has done almost every day since leaving school Oct. 16, Danielle baby-sat for relatives yesterday while waiting for her situation to be resolved.

"I wish that someone higher up would just step in and say, 'Hey, you guys are in the wrong,' " said Varnell, a Glenelg High cafeteria worker. "I don't know who else to talk to. No one is stepping forward and putting this kid in school."

Danielle has been living with Varnell since June, after leaving the home of her mother and stepfather in West Virginia. In court papers filed to obtain guardianship, Varnell alleged that the girl's stepfather wouldn't let her return home and was sometimes verbally and emotionally abusive, as well as "physically threatening."

She said the family does not have the documentation that the school system requires because relatives dealt with the problem internally.

"We solved it through the family," Varnell said. "If [Danielle's stepfather] was beating on her the police would have been in on it."

Howard County schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan said the school system is "absolutely not" considering changing its residency policy, which some criticize as too strict.

Caplan said the school system reviewed 676 cases last year involving students who wanted to attend a Howard County school because of a family hardship elsewhere. That doesn't count the hundreds of similar telephone inquiries, she said.

"In all of those cases, there were only a handful that could provide any kind of documentation to prove hardship," Caplan said. "All we need is for someone who is outside of the situation and in a professional capacity to take a look at it and say, 'Yes, this is serious and not a good situation for this child.' I think that somehow, along the way, this has not come across real well."

Though she could not comment specifically on Danielle's case, Caplan said that just because s a student's legal guardian is a Howard County resident is not enough to satisfy residency requirements. Guardianship is not difficult to get, Caplan said, and some have used it to get around the tuition payment.

An out-of-state resident -- which is how the school system describes Danielle -- would have to pay $6,570 a year in tuition. An in-state resident from another county would pay $4,790.

"It's very easy to get guardianship," Caplan said. "It can get transferred by one court trip and $100. That is why we have placed these restrictions, even on guardianship.

"Every one of those 676 kids has a face and a story. I'm sure that they are all compelling, but there is another level of accountability here that has to be addressed."

Caplan said accommodating every student who wanted to attend Howard County schools would put an undue burden on local taxpayers. Varnell said she is a local taxpayer.

"I don't see how [Danielle's] not a resident," Varnell said. "I'm a taxpayer, too. I pay property taxes on my home."

As for the tuition, Varnell said the person who made the anonymous offer of help has been dealing directly with Danielle's attorney. In addition, Caplan said the school district has received calls from others, asking if they could donate money to Danielle's cause.

But Varnell said no one should have to pay tuition for her niece to attend a Howard County school.

"I appreciate that guy's offer, but the school is in the wrong," she said. "[Danielle] was born here. She was here 11 years."

In the meantime, Varnell said she is trying to obtain the documentation to prove Danielle's circumstances qualify as a hardship case.

Still, she said, she wishes someone -- anyone -- could get her niece back into school -- and soon. Varnell said the girl's grades were As, Bs and Cs at Glenelg, compared with Ds and incompletes at her West Virginia school.

"Everyone's giving their opinion, but no one's helping," Varnell said. "All we want to do is get her in school."

Pub Date: 11/03/98

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