After Michael Francisco Barrios died in a workplace accident on a Tuesday in May, his relatives suggested that the Wheaton teenager would be alive had his efforts to register for school not been thwarted. Yesterday, Montgomery County public school officials released their own finding: He never tried to enroll.
According to a school system investigation, Barrios's mother sought only to enroll her 11-year-old daughter in school. From the time 15-year-old Michael arrived in the United States in December until his death in the grinding machinery of a mulch truck, Ada Nidia Villeda never indicated she had a son she wanted in school, too, the investigation found. On Angela's enrollment form, school officials said, the spot to list siblings was left blank.
Barrios's death had sparked cries from some community members that the school system, in an attempt to make sure students from other districts don't sneak into Montgomery County schools, has set up an enrollment process that is unduly harsh on immigrant families and others who don't always have the proper documentation to prove residency.
Even if Villeda had attempted to enroll her son, he might not have made it into school by May. The school system investigation concluded that after Villeda first met with the system's International Student Admissions Office in January about her daughter, Angela Calderon, three months passed without Angela being cleared to attend school because her mother didn't provide all the required documents. The girl, stuck at home and bored, eventually returned to live with relatives in Guatemala, family friends said.
The lease Villeda provided the school system when she brought Angela to enroll on Jan. 21 was missing a page, school officials said. A month later, she provided a statement of her guardianship of her daughter as required, and in early March Villeda returned with more documents -- though not all that was needed, according to a memo by Director of Student Services Carey Wright, who led the internal investigation of the admissions office, which is under her purview.
"There is an obligation on the part of the parents to provide the necessary documentation," school system chief of staff Brian J. Porter said yesterday.
Both Barrios, a U.S. citizen born in California, and his sister had been enrolled in Montgomery County schools previously, the investigation found: Michael from September 2000 to February 2001 at Argyle Middle School, and Angela in fall 2000 and fall 2002. Each time they withdrew, citing a move to a foreign country.
Villeda went to Guatemala after her son died, and she remains there.
Family friend Jennifer Pensler said yesterday that with Angela at home in the spring, Barrios was needed to baby-sit. When Angela returned to Guatemala, Barrios found work with TopMulch, a Brookeville landscaping company.
"Nidia did not attempt to enroll her son in school, and she told me that because he was a U.S. citizen, he could just be enrolled through [Wheaton High] school and did not need to go to the international office," Pensler said yesterday, adding that Montgomery County schools have created very high barriers for immigrants to enroll.
"This is really an emergency -- we have a highly mobile population," she said, and the school system "needs to find ways to help families that are in transition."
According to Wright, in the spring 93 percent of the county's new students were cleared to attend school within 10 days. In a memo to Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, she concluded that the admissions office "conducted itself appropriately with this family."