Trumbull schools update policy on homeless students

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A revised state law has made it easier for homeless students to enroll in local schools.

The law, which went into effect July 1, puts the responsibility on the school district, instead of a family, to show why a child without a fixed address should be allowed or kept out of class.

“The point is to remove barriers to education,” said Trumbull Assistant Superintendent Jonathan Budd, who spoke of the change at Trumbull’s recent school board meeting. “I suppose the system could potentially be abused, but that’s not the worst thing. The worst thing would be a child who can’t get an education because he is homeless.”

Trumbull has a strict protocol for parents who enroll a student in the public school system: they are required to provide proof of residency including a tax bill, lease or rent agreement, or current utility bills.

“If a student is homeless, they cannot be held to typical eligibility requirements,” Budd said.

In the past, a family without any of those documents had to show proof they were homeless but still residing in the district, among other things, before the child could be enrolled. With the new law, the family can declare they are homeless and it is up to the school to prove they are living or staying elsewhere.

Budd said Tuesday that there are a handful of homeless students currently enrolled in Trumbull schools. The number is small, fewer than 10, he said. But getting an exact number is not so simple since the condition tends to be temporary.

“We tend to think of homeless people as sleeping on sidewalks, and that’s not really the case in Trumbull,” Budd said. “More typical is a family that maybe was renting and got evicted, so they move around and sleep on couches and at friends’ houses.”

Budd has been working to update the school system’s policy on homeless students and presented a revised policy to the school board Tuesday. The board approved a draft of the revised policy with no recommended changes and is expected to formally adopt it at its January meeting.

Under the state’s revision of Public Act No. 19-179, homeless students cannot be denied an education based on non-residency. The act went into effect July 1.

The change is not inconsequential. In the past, school systems have gone as far as to press charges up to first-degree theft of services against homeless parents who enroll their children in local schools.

In an example that has become notorious, Tanya McDowell was jailed after Norwalk officials said she stole an education for her 5-year-old son Andrew by enrolling him in kindergarten at Brookside Elementary School.

McDowell said she was homeless at the time, and was spending nights at a homeless shelter in Norwalk and a friend’s house in Bridgeport.

In January 2010, McDowell and her son were turned away at the door of Brookside School. Months later, she was arrested after finishing dinner at the Norwalk shelter. She ended up serving three years of a 12-year sentence suspended after five years for first-degree larceny of services — essentially stealing an education.

While reports from her trial said she was convicted on larceny and unrelated drug charges, current Justice Department records show no drug convictions, just the larceny charge.

Although Gov. Dannel Malloy signed law that removed education from the list of “services” that could be stolen in 2013, McDowell still was required to repay the Norwalk school district $6,500.

McDowell now lives in Meriden where Andrew is an honors student.

When it comes to education, the federal government defines homeless students as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”

But regardless of whether the student has a regular place to sleep at night, if the student resides within Trumbull, the schools are required to educate them, Budd said.

“From a societal point of view, the worst thing would be if the student ends up homeless, then can’t go to school because they can’t provide a tax or utility bill,” Budd said. “They don’t have these things, otherwise they aren’t homeless.”

Legally, a homeless student is entitled to inclusion in all educational programs and services, including transportation, English language learning, health and food services, and preschool programs. District officials are obligated to remove barriers to education wherever possible, including waiving various fees and using reasonable means to determine an appropriate grade in the event that the student’s previous school records are unavailable.

If a homeless student gets permanent housing, the student is eligible to remain in the school in which they are enrolled through the end of the school year, according to the policy.

Even if parents could theoretically falsely claim to be homeless to gain the benefits of the policy, the fact that fewer than 10 students out of about 7,000 in Trumbull schools have been identified as homeless indicates that the potential for abuse is small, Budd said.

“It’s a good policy to have,” Budd said. “These are kids who are already facing significant challenges. Educating children, removing barriers. That’s an important part of what we do.”