Residency reversal reopens school door Howard officials end 2-month ban of girl, 16, who fled W.Va. home

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

Criticized for unusually strict residency rules that have barred some children from class, Howard County school officials decided yesterday to readmit 16-year-old Danielle Rash, who has been out of school since mid-October.

Danielle said she's thrilled and plans to be back in class at Glenelg High School today.

"When they took me out of there, I cried," said Danielle, who moved to her aunt's home in Woodbine to escape a troubled home life in West Virginia. "I got tired of it. Now that I'm back in -- yeehaw!"

Margaret E. Schultz, a pupil personnel worker with the school system, confirmed yesterday that Danielle has been granted a tuition waiver and can return to school. Schultz would not go into details and other officials could not be reached for comment on ** why they changed their minds.

Danielle is the second student to be granted a waiver in less than a week. On Friday, school officials told Etienne Fanfan, a 17-year-old from Haiti who lives with his mother in Columbia, that he could attend school. He had been barred, even though he has a green card, because his mother does not have one. Danielle moved in with her aunt in June because of a volatile living situation with her mother and stepfather in West Virginia. In August, her aunt became her legal guardian and later that month Danielle began to attend Glenelg with school officials' temporary permission.

But in mid-October, school officials told the 11th-grader she would either have to pay $6,570 in out-of-state tuition to attend the school, or move back to West Virginia, because she could not provide official documentation that she moved to Howard County to escape abuse in West Virginia.

But Danielle's stepfather would not let her back into the house, according to Danielle and her mother, and Danielle's family has said it cannot afford the tuition here. Instead, she spent the past two months baby-sitting and reading.

School officials say residency is determined by the parent's residence. Court-appointed guardianship does not itself establish residency, they say. Students like Danielle can attend if they pay tuition or provide documentation to prove hardship.

Danielle's guardian, Wendie Varnell, said she was happy about the news yesterday but also wary. When school officials told her the news, she said, she did two things: demanded a tutor for Danielle, and asked for written confirmation.

"Not til I get that paper in hand will I believe it," she said. " I don't trust them. I'm sorry."

Varnell also said that someone claiming to be from the state Board of Education called her late Monday night to express concern and interest.

"They should get somebody down there to investigate," Varnell said. "There are kids out there that need to be put in school for an education. They're making up their own little rules."

Ronald A. Peiffer, assistant state superintendent, said to his knowledge nobody at the state level has looked into Howard County's treatment of Danielle.

Danielle agreed that she will probably need a tutor to catch up, especially in chemistry and physics, geometry and Spanish.

But the teen was so happy yesterday, she said she wasn't too worried about that.

"I'll be all right," she said.

Danielle's lawyer, Timothy S. Barkley Sr., said he was happy to hear that the school system had finally come around.

"Honestly, while Peggy Schultz felt like she was doing her job, I think she was a bit overzealous in her attempts to maintain the purity of the regulation," he said.

Neither Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for Howard County schools, nor Estes Lockhart, director of pupil personnel, could be reached for comment. They have said in the past that the schools' strict residency rules are necessary to prevent hundreds of non-county students from attending, which would cause class sizes to grow and cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Every year, hundreds of students apply for tuition waivers in Howard County schools, they say. In 1997, Caplan has said, 676 students applied for tuition waivers and only 51 -- less than 8 percent -- were granted.

Caplan has said that tuition waivers are granted only to nonresidents who can prove hardship such as child abuse, neglect or abandonment; when the child's parents have died, suffer from serious illness, are incarcerated or are on emergency military assignment.

Critics -- including the county executive and the director of the county domestic abuse center -- have said the residency rules seem unusually strict in denying schooling to children who are legitimately living in the county.

Peiffer said each county is responsible for its own residency requirements, and the state usually gets involved only if a family appeals to the State Board of Education.

"That would be one way the state board could set precedent," he said.

Peiffer said residency disputes are not unusual around the state.

"We have had an ongoing trickle of calls related to residency and school enrollments for years," he said. "This is an ongoing thing."

Several weeks ago, Danielle visited a therapist who wrote a letter to school officials saying that Danielle moved to Howard County to escape an "intolerable home situation" in West Virginia. School officials said that wasn't good enough. The therapist sent another letter last week, according to Caplan and Varnell.

Yesterday, on her last day out of school, Danielle said she cleaned her room and enjoyed the first good mood she's had in two months. Since she was kicked out of school, she said, the days have seemed to drag by.

She said she's still angry at school officials for all they put her through.

"All this runaround, it just wasn't worth it," she said. "It wasn't worth it. It wasn't worth it at all."

Pub Date: 12/09/98

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