In 1985, four mothers were arrested for first degree larceny. They did not steal clothes from a store or valuables from another person’s home. They were arrested for stealing an education. In April of 1985, Saundra Foster, Elizabeth Brown, Claude Johnson, and Norma Wright were arrested for sending their children across district lines to attend school in Bloomfield, Connecticut. Foster, Brown, and Johnson resided in Hartford, and Wright resided in Windsor. However, because the Hartford women were arrested first, most of the media attention was focused on them and the city of Hartford. The parents felt that their children would receive a better education over in Bloomfield than in their home district. The Bloomfield Police Department decided to make examples of their situations, and arrested the mothers in hopes of discouraging other poor, black students of Hartford and other towns from jumping the school district dividing line. The arrests had a profound impact on the way people both in the city and the suburbs saw the inequality of Connecticut public education, setting the stage for the Sheff vs O’Neill case that would take place a few years later and would draw significant attention to the extent of school segregation in Connecticut. The arrests also drew attention to a larger civil rights issue, where poor women of color were unfairly targeted by the Bloomfield Police department when they attempted to provide a better education for their children.
Arrests Without Precedent: Prior Approach to District Jumpers
Prior to the 1985 arrests of Saundra Foster and the three other mothers, Bloomfield school board simply disenrolled any non-resident student found attending Bloomfield schools, without any involvement from the police departments. In 1985, it was reported that about 20 students were expelled from Bloomfield each year for being non-residents (Johnson). Dave Drury reported in the Hartford Courant, “Attorneys with the state Department of Education said they had never heard of a town seeking criminal sanctions in a school residence case.” (Drury). By deciding to arrest these Hartford and Windsor parents instead of simply having the Bloomfield School Board go through the traditional disenrollment process, the Bloomfield police sent a powerful message to parents of Hartford and other high-poverty cities: to attempt to provide a better education for your child by sending them to a different district than the one they live in is a dangerous move. The Bloomfield Police department turned a situation that could have been handled quietly and within precedent of Connecticut school districts, into a highly public scare tactic directed very clearly at poor parents.
The Charges: How Seeking an Education Became a Crime
The mothers were charged with first degree larceny. First degree larceny is a class B felony offence in Connecticut that could mean up to 20 years in prison and a fine of as much as $10,000 (Drury). Connecticut Penal law defines larceny as “intent to deprive another of property or to…wrongfully take, obtain, or withhold such property from an owner” (CT Penal Law). The questions then arise: who is the owner of a free public education? How is it possible to steal something guaranteed by law to be provided to you for no cost?
According to the Bloomfield police, each parent stole $4,001 of education services from Bloomfield education funds, which comes mostly from taxpayers, for their child. $4,001 is the per pupil spending reported by Bloomfield school district for the 1985,the eighth highest in the state for that year(Drury). The mothers were initially going to be charged with third degree larceny, a lesser crime; however, the police decided they would issue warrants for arrest on first degree larceny. Even though the value of money they deemed stolen didn’t alone qualify for this charge, Bloomfield police claimed the crime included an element of extortion which therefore pushed the charged up to the first degree.
Had these students attended the Hartford schools they were assigned to by their residency, they would have received 8% less per pupil spending than a child in Bloomfield (CPEC). According to this logic, a free education is worth more in Bloomfield than in Hartford, and it would be a lower level criminal charge if, hypothetically, Bloomfield parents were to send their children to Hartford schools, stealing taxpayer money from Hartford parents. Any claims the education provided in Hartford and the education provided in Bloomfield is equal are hypocritical by Bloomfield’s rationale. These arrests hinged on putting a clear price on services rendered by schools, and that price was not equal.
Hartford and Bloomfield Responses
The arrests also sparked a discussion on what needed to be improved upon in Hartford schools to prevent more parents from feeling the need illegally send their children to a different school district. When Saundra Foster went to the police station after she learned of the warrant for her arrest, State Senator Frank D. Barrows, whose district included Hartford, went with her in support. Barrows stated to reporters that “the education system is deplorable in the city of Hartford” (Drury), justifying Foster’s choice to send her child to Bloomfield. However, Amando Cruz, the Hartford Public High School principal at the time, defended Hartford Public Schools, and stated “To say that within an urban setting, in an urban school you can not achieve, that’s erroneous.” He went on to emphasize the support provided in Hartford schools, especially for students that may not receive all the support they require at home, and he went as far as to argue that children in Hartford could become even more successful than children being educated in the suburbs. Cruz stated, “You can see by our achievement scores we have progressed,” although it was unclear what scores specifically he was referring to and how those score compared to Bloomfield. He invited politicians like Barrows to come visit Hartford schools themselves and see what they were like before commenting on their quality (Mendoza and Saunders).
But clear problems in Hartford public schools were brought to light as a result of the publicity the Bloomfield arrests. Among other issues, such as the needs of children coming from such concentrated poverty overwhelming the school district, Dr. James Comer, a Yale psychiatrist and school reform advocate, discussed Hartford teachers’ lower expectations for poor students of color. He stated, “there are too many [teachers] that think low income minority group children cannot learn well” and went on to explain that many of these teachers “don’t understand the community they’re in” or “the learning problem from a developmental standpoint” (Mendoza and Saunders). The need for large scale education reform in Hartford became even more apparent because of the controversy caused by the arrests.
Bloomfield had its own response to the arrests of Saundra Foster and the other mothers of non-resident students, which demonstrated that even Bloomfield leaders realized that going through the arrest process instead of the disenrollment process had been a mistake. The Bloomfield Town Council and the Bloomfield Board of Education joined together to create a resolution outlining steps the school district could take in the future to deal with non-resident students before resorting to criminal proceedings. The steps they listed included were somewhat vague though, as the board listed general aims such as creating a more thorough system for checking residency and allotting money for the enforcement of enrollment policies (Drury).
All of these measures are commendable to a degree and would have been appropriate before Hartford mothers were arrested. The creation of this resolution demonstrated that the arrests were not regular or even necessary actions by the police. The Bloomfield response was an acknowledgment from Bloomfield leaders that a lapse in judgement had been made.
Further Implications: Bloomfield Arrests as a Civil Rights Issue
Att.M. Donald Cardwell, who represented Saundra Foster, argued that by using the arrest process instead of the disenrollment process, the Bloomfield police did not solve the problem of non resident students attending districts outside of their home town, but rather drew more attention to the unequal education system that caused the issue. Cardwell asks the question that most likely was brought to the minds of Hartford residents who heard about the case: “how does one steal free, public education?” He goes on to outline the socioeconomic disparities in Connecticut public education, stating “when you educate the poor people in one group, the middle class people in another group, and the upper-class people in the other third group, something unfair is happening to the poor, to the children of the poor” (Mendoza and Saunders).
In 1985, the average income for families living in Hartford was $14,000, with nearly a third of the population living below the poverty line, while the average income for families living in Bloomfield was almost double that. Many, like Mr. Cardwell, argued that disparities in education between these two towns was a colorblind issue, owing not to race but to the socioeconomic gap that existed between Hartford and Bloomfield. Gerald Terozzi, the Connecticut Commissioner of Education in 1985, expressed a similar sentiment, stating “this goes beyond the race issue. This is an economic issue, it’s rich and poor” (Mendoza and Saunders). However, many others recognized that the racial segregation that existed in Connecticut also plays a factor in the quality of education children are receiving. Children in Hartford are a majority children of color, and a long list of historically racist policies contributed to them being most heavily affected by poverty. It is this concentrated poverty brought about by a history of racism that led to Hartford schools having to meet the needs of so many poor students of color.
In addition, the 1985 arrests were not only an issue of race and class, but one of gender. This case also brought to light the fact that women, and specifically single mothers, are the ones primarily responsible for making education choices for their children. It was no coincidence that it was four women who were arrested for sending their children to Bloomfield. Single parents, the overwhelming majority single mothers, made up half of Hartford households in 1985 (Mendoza and Saunders). This is notable because it means that it was mostly poor women of color, a historically disadvantaged demographic on all fronts, that the Bloomfield police were specifically trying to target with their scare tactic of the arrest process. This pointed means of intimidation indicated a larger civil rights issue of poor people of color receiving unequal and inadequate access to educational opportunities.
1945 MetroH School Expense Review. Rep. N.p.: CPEC, n.d. Print.
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