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New Legislation Decriminalizes Theft of School Accommodations for Non-Residency

Although rarely done, in the past few years, several Connecticut public school districts have been featured in the news for seeking criminal remedies against parents for theft of educational services.  Parents who allegedly enrolled and sent their child to a school located in a town or city other than the one where the child actually resided were referred to the police.On June 24, 2013, Governor Malloy signed into law Substitute House Bill No. 6677/ PA-13-211 an Act Excluding School Accommodations from Services That Are Subject to Larceny Statute. The law, effective October 1, 2013, repeals and replaces subsection (a) of C.G.S. 53a-118, a definitional section under which Connecticut police have derived authority to arrest parents who engage in theft of services from school districts. Under the repealed law, the term “services” was interpreted to include school accommodations. Under the revised C.G.S. 53a-118, “school accommodations” are specifically excluded from the definition of “services”. This change appears to decriminalize the behavior.

The new legislation seems to reflect the public outcry expressed in news articles and opinion pieces against those school officials that opted to take criminal action against offending parents. The public admonishments were notably strongest when the parents selected for prosecution appeared to be a member of a minority or might be considered economically disadvantaged.  The parents’ actions were often described in the press as understandable parental concern where the parent sought enrollment for their child in a school district known for better school accommodations than the one in which their child resided. This public expression of disapproval hints not so subtly, at a bigger longstanding concern in Connecticut-that of educational equity and parity for all Connecticut public school students regardless of  their race, wealth or the size of their school district.

But where does this recent change in the law leave school districts? What are districts’ rights and responsibilities in residency cases?  Boards of Education continue to be obliged under the state law to provide free public school accommodations to those children who reside in the school district who are five years of age and over and under twenty-one years of age and who have not  graduated  a high school or technical high school. Boards continue to be required to provide due process to the parents of those students to whom school accommodations are denied. Due process includes notice, possible multiple hearings and appeals.  If a parent is unsuccessful in proving eligibility for school accommodations, the Board may still attempt to recoup tuition costs from the parents of students who received free accommodations through debt collection measures. But now, C.G.S. 53a-118 removes from a school district’s arsenal the option of referral to police for theft of school accommodations.

The problem of theft of school accommodations will continue to exist and school districts are urged to report concerns and suggestions for workable solutions or changes to state residency laws to Connecticut state education advocacy groups and state legislators.