For some Baltimore County students and their parents, getting ready for the school year that starts today involves more than just restocking the pencil box and buying new clothes.
These parents must prove that the children really live in the county - even if the kids have been going to county schools for years.
The new policy applies to students moving from elementary to middle school or from middle to high school. And it is designed, at least in part, to prevent students who live outside Baltimore County from fraudulently attending county schools, a concern voiced in recent years by lawmakers.
County school officials say many parents have responded to the request since it went out in May. But for Dontoni Fisher, proving where she lived became another last-minute back-to-school task.
"It's a step they didn't really have to do," said Fisher, who said she took half-day off work Friday to be sure that her son Davon would be able to make the jump from Featherbed Lane Elementary School to Woodlawn Middle.
For years, elected county officials have said they've been hearing complaints from parents who believe large numbers of children who live in other jurisdictions are fraudulently enrolling in the school system. But exact numbers have been hard to come by.
Vincent J. Gardina, a Baltimore County councilman who has pressed schools officials on the issue, said that the new requirement was a good start, adding that he believes the problem of "illegal" students is greatest in middle and high schools because of the potential for discipline issues.
Students' residencies in those grades, he added, "need to be verified every year, really."
Parents were told in a letter that they had until Friday to verify their residencies; otherwise, their children would be considered to have withdrawn from school, a schools spokeswoman said. And if they failed to do so but still sent their child to school today, they'll be asked to provide the documentation - or take the student home.
Officials from area school systems and government say they have a responsibility to taxpayers to take steps to be sure limited education dollars aren't being spent to teach children who don't live in the school district.
"On the other hand, we have to do a responsible investigation to respect the rights of the children, which is why they stay put while we are investigating," said Sally Pelham, the assistant superintendent for student support services in Anne Arundel County. "This is not a cursory investigation. We're talking about people who might be sitting outside a house at 5 in the morning. They're very skilled investigators."
The Howard County school system typically investigates "several dozen" students each year, spokeswoman Patti Caplan said. Sometimes tips about a student's residency come from the world of sports, she said, noting that a player found to be ineligible could bring a team an entire season of forfeit losses.
"Kids will learn about their teammates living outside of the county, and they will turn them in before the season starts. They take it seriously," she said.
The issue has simmered for several years in Baltimore County. In 2004, the County Council passed a resolution noting a community perception that an "inordinate number of ineligible nonresident students" are enrolled in county schools and asking the school system to report on its efforts to weed out students who live outside the county. The school system responded with letters that, Gardina said, did not satisfy his concerns.
Two years ago, the council unanimously passed a resolution that authorized the county auditor to examine school records for evidence of fraudulent enrollment. But the school system said federal law shields many of its records from public view.
The new requirements in Baltimore County emerged from meetings during the last school year of a committee on residency policy, said Dale Rauenzahn, executive director of student support services for the county schools.
Many of the principals and assistant principals involved in the process were concerned that students weren't subject to any kind of residency verification after kindergarten, Rauenzahn said. Sometimes parents move, he said, and don't update their information, perhaps because they assume it will happen automatically.
The entrance of students to middle and high school seemed like natural points for an update, he said.
The district also investigates reports of students who may be fraudulently enrolled - a procedure in place for a couple of years now, Rauenzahn said.
"The school system has been working with the county to try to reinforce that we are diligent about our residency" policy, he said.
County schools spokeswoman Kara E.B. Calder said last week that the new registration policy can help schools maintain accurate student records.
"By having the new residency verification process, we can really help schools manage this issue," she said.