Topic Two: Rooting out 'illegal' students

Ramey Beavers is senior director of growth management for Wake County Public Schools. He ultimately is responsible for investigating any tips on students who might be fraudulently enrolled in the school system. The system this month allowed a popular high school senior to return to class at Southeast Raleigh after it initially kicked her out because her parents no longer lived in the county. The student was living with her uncle, who has filed to be her legal guardian.Excerpts from an interview with assistant Q editor Burgetta Eplin Wheeler.

Q. How does the school system hear about students who might be enrolled illegally?

A. When we get those reports, it could be somebody in the school who knows it’s crowded and they know so and so isn’t supposed to be there. It could be somebody who had a run-in with someone who then says, “You aren’t supposed to be here.” It could be someone in another county who is aggravated because a person they know is going to Wake County, and they’re not. A lot of the tips are anonymous, those who say, “I can’t talk about Johnny because of the privacy act.” We check them out. We got one just the other day. “These kids are living so and so and they’re going to so and so.” We checked it out, and both of them were there on legitimate circumstances, on board-approved transfers.

Q: And who checks this out?

A: Sometimes I do. Sometimes someone on the staff will. It’s very hard to run down. Sometimes we look up on the tax rolls and see, do they really own a house in Johnston County or Franklin County or Durham County? But I am responsible for it. And we do follow up on tips for that. What I want people to understand is, you call us, and you tell us about Johnny and you want to know how he’s going to so and so, generally speaking, we probably can’t tell you because of the privacy act. But if we get a tip, we do investigate.

Q: How did the Southeast High School case come to light?

A: I don’t remember. I really don’t. Once we get them, we just start working on them. Sometimes the tips come from the schools themselves. Somebody at the school will figure out, “We haven’t seem Mama forever. We asked Mama to come in, and she never came in.” We get them in a lot of different ways.

Q: Does the system have an estimate on how many students are enrolled fraudulently?

A: No. If we knew how many were here illegally, we could do something about it. When somebody tells us, then we work on it. We have some students who are here who live in other counties because they pay tuition. We have a pretty good number of kids who are here who live in another county because their parents are employed by the Wake County Public School System, and they come with them. We have others who are here illegally, who are not residents, who really should not be there. Those are the ones we’re concerned about.

Q: With the increased crowding in the schools, don’t you think this could become a hot-button issue?

A: It could. Hardly a week goes by we don’t have something come up where somebody says, “Where does this child live? Why are they here? Where’s their mama?”

Q: What’s the procedure when somebody says that?

A: The first thing is, we determine, is the child actually enrolled here? Are they here legally or illegally? If they’re here legally, that’s the end of it. If they’re here illegally, we try to figure out where they’re supposed to be, how they got here, what the options are going to be to finish the semester or finish the year. Are they going to pay tuition or just withdraw and go?

There are two segments of this problem. One segment is where the parents live in an adjoining county and bring the kids across the line. The other is when the parent lives in some other state or some other part of North Carolina or even outside the country, and the child is just here living with somebody else, going to school. That’s probably as common as anything. That’s probably about as many as any we hear about, and in that case, somebody really has to tell us. Mama and Dad come in to register the child, the child comes, the child never gets into trouble, does well, we never have to have the parents in. Then what you have is, you have to investigate, you have to call someone a liar because they aren’t really living here. Now, with the frequency of travel, Mama jumps on a plane and shows up and says, “What do you mean I’m not living here?”

Q: What about the kids who live in the county but are trying to fraudulently go to a school they aren’t assigned to?

A: Yes, somebody will e-mail us or call and say, “How’s Johnny going to Broughton when he lives in Apex?” Well, he could be there as a magnet student, and they just don’t know that. A better example is, “How is this child going to Millbrook when I know he lives in the Sanderson zone?” He could be there as a transfer, he could be there using somebody else’s address. With the mobility of people in this county, it’s pretty difficult to catch every situation.

Q: I hear a lot about kids who live with one divorced parent but use the other parent’s address to go to a better school.

A: Very honestly, if they have two parents, if there is a divorce, and unless one parent has been given sole custody with no rights to the other parent, then the parents themselves can choose the address which they want the child to use. They sign off a notarized statement saying, “We’re going to use this address.” Both parents have to agree. So yes, there are some children who get to go to one school when they are actually sleeping at the residence of the other parent.

Q: What’s the most outrageous example of cheating you’ve found?

A: The most outrageous was a family that came from outside the country to drop off a child, to leave them, and we didn’t believe they were going to stay, so we pressed the issue. Then Mom said, “Oh, I’m going to stay.” So they signed off on the documents as if they were going to stay. A week later, we tried to find her, and she’s gone back. And the child is not eligible to stay here and go to school here. Sometimes they’re staying with a friend, sometimes a relative.

But that’s the bottom line. We say we assign students to schools based on the legal residence of a parent or a court-appointed guardian. And that’s it.

Q: Why do people cheat on this?

A: I think they do it, first of all, because it’s a good school system. Other times, they do it because they’re just trying almost to survive. They leave the child somewhere. We’ve had cases where the parent said where they resided was not safe for their child.

Q: And how do you reconcile that? You have black and white rules, and sometimes your heart wants there to be gray.

A: Very honestly, you try to let it be a head decision and not a heart decision. I know that sounds cruel. But our job is to maintain the policies of the school board. I’d like to say, “You’re a good guy, so you get to stay.” But then there’s, “You’re a bad guy so you can’t.” We can’t do that.

What I try to say to my staff is that when you walk out the door in the afternoon, know you’ve done exactly what you’re supposed to do under the policy of the school district. We know every time we deviate from that, it will almost always come back to haunt us.

And that’s true of this policy and every other policy. Following the policy is the best practice.