Schools treat two students differently Howard officials say strict residency limit protects taxpayers

Few get tuition waiver

Critics say policy that excludes many is used capriciously

November 09, 1998|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Three years ago, Danny Bayron left a life of crime and drugs in the Bronx and headed south toward a haven. Taken in by a Howard County family and the county's highly regarded school district, Bayron, now 18, became a football star at Wilde Lake High School and is being recruited by several colleges -- including Princeton.

Last summer, 17-year-old Etienne Fanfan began a similar journey, fleeing a life surrounded by crime and gunfire in poverty-ridden Haiti. But he was turned away from Howard County schools, told he does not meet their strict residency requirements and would have to pay $6,570 to attend Wilde Lake High near his Columbia home.

Bayron and Fanfan illustrate flip sides of the county's residency policy, used by school officials to bar hundreds of hardship applicants and to grant exemptions to a handful.

In the 1997-1998 academic year, 676 students who do not meet residency requirements applied for tuition waivers in the county, said Mark Blom, a lawyer for the district. About nine received exemptions, and about 115 paid tuition to enter the school system, he said. Officials say such restrictions are needed to prevent outsiders from crowding schools.

Critics say school officials act capriciously, bending residency requirements for some while denying them to others who are equally deserving.

"I'm very concerned," said Kinza Schuyler, executive director of the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network (FIRN) in Howard County, a group that works to protect the rights of thousands of legal and illegal immigrants. "I'm concerned that assumptions are made and that certain people are made to go to extraordinary lengths to prove residency and others are not."

Christopher Cross, president of the Council for Basic Education in Washington and past president of the Maryland State Board of Education, calls the situation "tragic."

"Where is our societal conscience about wasting the lives of young people who should be getting an education?" he said.

The county's residency requirements have been drawing heat since school officials ordered 16-year-old Danielle Rash to leave Glenelg High School in mid-October. The girl, who moved to the area from West Virginia, was told she does not meet the requirements, though she lives with her legal guardian in western Howard County.

School officials deny favoritism or wrongdoing.

"All these cases have been handled appropriately within our policy," said Estes Lockhart, county director of pupil services. With hundreds of out-of-county students seeking entry each year, he said, schools must be vigilant. Otherwise, taxpayers would have to spend millions of dollars to accommodate outsiders.

Important difference

"We believe the taxpayers of Howard County would not want us to be educating children from other counties," he said.

Patti Caplan, county schools spokeswoman, noted an important difference between students such as Bayron, who are granted tuition waviers, and students like Rash and Fanfan, who are not: proof of hardship, such as abandonment or abuse.

"It goes to people who can provide documentation of hardship," Caplan said. "That's the part that keeps getting missed somehow."

Proof of hardship

Ronald Lewis, Bayron's caretaker, said Bayron was granted his tuition waiver after providing proof of hardship. For confidentiality reasons, Lewis would not go into detail.

School officials have been unwilling to admit Rash or Fanfan, whose two siblings have been attending Howard County schools.

His father "didn't want me to die, so he sent me up here," said Fanfan, describing the nighttime gunshots outside his Haiti home and the thieves who would knock on the door demanding money.

Fanfan has a green card, but the Howard County schools refused to admit him to Wilde Lake in August because his mother does not have a green card, said Fanfan's second cousin, Guerdy Brunache, speaking on behalf of the family.

School officials would not talk about Fanfan's case but said that, generally, if the parent or legal guardian is not a county resident, the minor cannot be considered a legal resident, either -- even if he or she has a green card.

"If the family has a bona fide residence here, if mom and dad have green cards and have a bona fide residence here, then there is not a problem and the kid can go to school," Lockhart said.

Roger Rice, a lawyer and executive director of Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy Project Inc., a Boston-based nonprofit group that works nationwide to protect the rights of immigrants, said Howard County's treatment of Fanfan is "totally outrageous."

"If neither of them has a green card, the kid has a constitutional right to live in Howard County," Rice said. "So the fact that one of them has a green card shouldn't lessen that right."

Rice said school systems across the nation try to keep immigrants out, but Howard County is going further than most.

'No double standard'

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