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On Jan. 19, 17-year-old Jessica Proctor and her mother, Tyvic Proctor, had a fight typical of their contentious relationship. This one, though, ended with Jessica booted out of her Indian Head, Md., home. She caught the last commuter bus to the District and begged her aunt, Sharron Newman, to take her in.
“I couldn’t say no,” recalls Newman, who lives in a brick apartment building on Missouri Avenue NW in Petworth.“She showed up at my door in the snow.” Newman agreed to take the girl in on the condition that Jessica finish high school, and on Tuesday, Jan. 25, the pair headed to nearby Coolidge Senior High School to register Jessica in the 11th grade.
“I wanted to go to school so bad,” Jessica says.
But Jessica did not end up back in high school that day or for nearly two more months afterward, not because she broke her end of the deal but because the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) repeatedly rebuffed her attempts to register.
Registration is generally a simple process; it requires the presentation of basic information such as the student’s immunization certification, past grades, and a utility bill or driver’s license to prove residency. According to Julianne Wade, coordinator of the DCPS Student Residency Office, the residency-verification process should take “seconds.” But children with “primary caregivers”—adults such as aunts, grandmothers, or foster parents who live with and financially support them—are running into roadblocks despite a law designed to facilitate their ability to register.
Meg McKinney, a co-founder of the Family Court Self Help Center, says that during last August and September her center dealt with more than 50 cases similar to Jessica’s. One example, says McKinney, was an elementary-school student who was living in D.C. with her aunt while her parents lived in South America. The school demanded that the aunt file for custody. After the principal consulted a DCPS lawyer, the aunt was ultimately allowed to register the girl in school.
Su Sie Ju, a senior staff attorney at Bread for the City, says her organization gets a handful of clients walking in with similar problems, but she thinks there are a significant number of caregivers in the District who don’t know where to go in such a situation. “People are often shocked at how difficult it is to enroll a child in their care in school,” she says.
One such case came to Ju this past February from Bruce Bishop, an attorney who volunteers with the Self Help Center. Bishop was assisting a District resident who was attempting to register her niece in a D.C. elementary school. But he was unable to persuade the Student Residency Office to give him the primary-caregiver form needed to register the child. Bishop says he has handled at least three or four similar cases and calls Jessica’s situation “not uncommon.”
“It’s still happening,” says Eric Angel, legal director of the D.C. Legal Aid Society, referring to students’ being denied the opportunity to register for lack of a legal guardian. While he doesn’t have firm numbers, he says that “What [Jessica] experienced happens more often than it should.”
According to Ralph Neal, assistant superintendent for school and student-support services, primary caregivers are legally authorized to register children they are caring for in schools. D.C. Code further mandates that the form a caregiver needs to sign “shall be available at all District of Columbia public school buildings.” The D.C. Council adopted the primary-caregiver provision in December 2004 to reflect the reality that many District children are raised by someone, often a grandmother, other than a parent or legal guardian.
But according to Jessica and her aunt, when the two arrived to register, Coolidge staff assistant Francine Thomas told them that to do so Newman had to be Jessica’s parent or legal guardian.
After Thomas told them they needed to file for custody, Newman spent the next week attempting to emancipate Jessica from her mother’s custody. When the two were ultimately told by Calvert County officials that Jessica’s impending 18th birthday, on May 25, would make the lengthy custody proceedings irrelevant, they decided to return to Coolidge for a second try. To assist them, a staffer at Lackey High School, Jessica’s previous school, printed out the language of the statute mandating that DCPS register Jessica and highlighted the relevant sections.
On Feb. 10, the pair claim, they were again told that Newman must be a legal guardian. When Newman showed Thomas the highlighted portions of the statute, Newman said she was told to take it up with DCPS’ Student Residency Office. “I couldn’t believe it,” says Jessica. “I thought they’d definitely let me in this time. I figured they just had to. We had the forms and everything.”
That afternoon, Wade told her she could register Jessica for a 10-day period but that during that time, Newman had to begin the process of filing for legal custody of Jessica.
The next day, Newman, still certain she shouldn’t have to go through the arduous experience of filing for custody, called on the help of a free legal clinic run by the University of the District of Columbia’s law school.
On Feb. 15, Candice Owens, a second-year law student, called Thomas at Coolidge. She learned Jessica was ineligible to be admitted to Coolidge for a geographic reason: Newman’s address put her on the south side of Missouri Avenue, which is in Roosevelt Senior High School’s district. Owens called Roosevelt and a week later finally reached a staff assistant, who insisted that Jessica’s aunt had to be her legal guardian.
On March 9, after another few weeks of phone calls, Owens went to Roosevelt with Jessica and Newman, carrying a copy of the primary-caregiver form all schools are required to keep on hand. Simply by signing it, Newman attested that she was Jessica’s primary caregiver, and that therefore Jessica met the requirement for registration. (Of course, simply signing the document does not prove primary-caregiver status. DCPS is free to—and often does—investigate claims of primary-caregiver status for veracity. The investigation does not, however, hold up the registration process.) “Candice walked into the office all dressed up,” says Newman, “and said, ‘I represent Ms. Proctor and Ms. Newman.’ That was all it took. Everyone listens when you have representation.”
But after all of that, it turned out that two of Jessica’s shots were out of date, so it wasn’t until the following Monday, March 14, that she was finally registered.
Administrators at Coolidge and Roosevelt seem only vaguely familiar with the primary-caregiver law. Coolidge’s principal, Cecil Robinson, who wasn’t familiar with Jessica’s case, initially claimed that a student needs a “parent or legal guardian” to register. “If Mom had come with the aunt, there probably would not have been a problem,” he said. But a little later in the conversation, Robinson, a first-year principal, said that even without a legal guardian, “If everything is in order, I’ve got no problem admitting her.”
A conversation with Roosevelt assistant principal Linwood Lawton went the same way: initial insistence on legal guardianship, then recognition that a primary caregiver was OK, too.
Wade, of the Student Residency Office, says she told Newman to file for custody because Tyvic Proctor still receives child support for Jessica in Maryland. But Neal, Wade’s supervisor, says that as long as Newman is providing financial support for Jessica—housing her, feeding her, clothing her, and so on—she is considered a primary caregiver and is authorized to register her.
“She should have been given the [primary-caregiver] form upfront,” says Neal.
But that acknowledgement may have come too late for Jessica. Gail Cantor, staff assistant at DCPS’ Office of Student Support Services, says that Jessica will be unable to pass 11th grade having missed two months of class. She will have to attend summer school, though as a junior she can take only two courses this summer, not enough to pass her on to 12th grade.
For Jessica, the entire experience has been bewildering. She had always experienced the situation in reverse: principals, guidance counselors, and parents urging her, often against her will, to attend school. But when it comes to the differences between her new school and her old one, she doesn’t see life at Roosevelt as being worth the wait. “At my old school, when we’d cuss out a teacher, they’d put us out or suspend us,” she says. “Here they cuss you right back.” CP