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Arrest of Homeless Connecticut Woman for Enrolling Son in School Illegally Sparks Debate

Tanya McDowell

Tanya McDowell, a 33-year-old homeless woman whose last known address was in Bridgeport, Conn., was charged with larceny and conspiracy to commit larceny for allegedly enrolling her son in Norwalk schools under a false address. (

A Connecticut mother who says she wanted to give her son a better education will be arraigned on Wednesday on charges for enrolling the 6-year-old in another town, sparking outrage and support from people nationwide.

Tanya McDowell, a 33-year-old homeless woman whose last known address was in Bridgeport, Conn, is scheduled to be arraigned on charges of larceny and conspiracy to commit larceny for allegedly stealing $15,686 from Norwalk schools. Prosecutors allege that figure is the value of her son's education at Norwalk's Brookside Elementary School between the time he was illegally enrolled in January and McDowell's arrest on April 14. If convicted, she faces up to 20 years in prison.

But Gwen Samuel, founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, an educational lobbying group, plans to hold a rally and press conference in support of McDowell in front of the state Superior Court in Norwalk at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Samuel said she wants the charges filed against McDowell to be dropped.

"This should've never happened," Samuel told "Do we really want to be punitive for this? We just cannot be the state that is stooping to this level. We can look at this and do it another way. This just should not be happening."

Samuel, who will be joined by McDowell on Wednesday, called upon state lawmakers to repeal legislation that criminalizes actions by parents who seek to obtain a better education for their children.

"We need to look at homelessness and realize it's not just people living under bridges," she said. "Some people don't have a stable place to lay their head, and we need to be very sensitive to the fiscal crisis and the results of that. How do we assure this doesn't become a pattern?"

Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia, meanwhile, defended the arrest, saying McDowell used a friend's public housing address to enroll her son at Brookside Elementary School. Moccia also noted McDowell's criminal history, including a November arrest for possession of marijuana and narcotics and an 18-month prison term in 2001 for robbery and weapons offenses.

"This is not a poor, picked-upon homeless person," Moccia said on Monday. "This is an ex con, and somehow the city of Norwalk is made into the ogre in this. She has a checkered past at best."

Moccia said his office has received more than 100 emails from across the country in support of McDowell. He disputes claims that city officials are being insensitive to McDowell's plight.

"We're a very compassionate city," he said. "She knew how to post bond, she had a car -- why didn't she send her kid to the Bridgeport school? This woman is not a victim and Norwalk is not an ogre. As far as I'm concerned, let them say what they want."

What's "lost" in the case, according to Moccia, is McDowell's son, who was "bounced around" the state's educational system due to his mother's wishes.

McDowell told Fox News' Greta Van Susteren on Tuesday that other parents recommended Brookside to her.

"He loved the school. He talks about it constantly," she said, and now he wonders why he can't go back.

In a statement released late Monday, Norwalk Public Schools officials indicated that McDowell testified in the Norwalk Housing Court on Jan. 11 that she and her son actually lived at 66 Priscilla Circle in Bridgeport, Conn.

"She did not testify at that time that she was homeless," the statement read. "Sometime prior to January 19, 2011, Ms. McDowell registered her son in a public school in Bridgeport ... Attendance records indicate that her son's last day at Brookside School was January 14, 2011."

The Norwalk Public Schools did not initiate the proceeding in Norwalk Housing Court to remove McDowell's son or file a criminal complaint against McDowell, the statement continued.

"The Norwalk Public Schools fully complies with the McKinney-Vento Act, which requires public schools to provide education for homeless students," the statement concluded. "In this case, according to her own testimony, Ms. McDowell and her son reside in Bridgeport, and we are aware of no evidence that she or her son is homeless."

Calls to Elizabeth Reid, McDowell's court-appointed attorney, were not returned on Monday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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