Families accused of fraudulently enrolling their children in Duke Ellington School of the Arts are getting more time to defend themselves, an apparent acknowledgment by city officials of missteps in an investigation that has rocked the celebrated institution.
After parents sued the District, D.C. government officials agreed Wednesday to more clearly inform families of how they can appeal the fraud findings and to restart the clock for appealing their cases.
The move by the city represents a small victory for families cast into turmoil by the investigation, but it does not remove the cloud that has descended over Ellington.
The families are accused of living outside the city and fraudulently enrolling their children in the public arts school without paying the tuition required of suburbanites who attend D.C. schools.
Eight families sued the city Monday in D.C. Superior Court. They sought a restraining order against the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education — the agency that conducted the enrollment fraud investigation — to prevent the agency from acting on notices sent to families this month notifying them of the allegations. The OSSE agreed to withdraw the notices Wednesday morning, and a judge dismissed the case.
The withdrawal of the notices appears to show that the superintendent’s office failed to follow protocol when telling parents that they are believed to be committing residency fraud. The cases have been sent to the Office of the Attorney General, but Rob Marus, a spokesman for the D.C. attorney general, said results of the appeals process will factor into how the District’s top law enforcement officer moves forward.
“Going forward, we now hope [the superintendent’s office] will follow the law, and we also invite them to work with both the school and parents on an open process that we believe can lead to correct decisions and also afford the due process all affected families deserve,” said Greg Smith, a lawyer and Ellington parent who drafted the legal complaint on behalf of the families. Smith, a Capitol Hill resident, is not accused of residency fraud.
The lawsuit came in the wake of findings released this month that nearly 30 percent of the Ellington student body appeared to be living outside the District, with some families submitting “falsified or inauthentic documents” to prove residency, according to the investigation.
The findings threaten a large segment of the school’s families with expensive litigation and potentially substantial fines.
The superintendent’s office stood by the finding of the investigation and said in a statement Wednesday that it will inform families that they have 10 days to appeal administratively. The families can contest the findings through a review before the Office of Administrative Hearings or accept the investigation’s findings and arrange to pay tuition for the current academic year.
If families admit to enrollment fraud, their cases could still be prosecuted by the attorney general, and they could be responsible for paying penalties and unpaid tuition from previous years.
The superintendent’s office did not acknowledge the lawsuit or the request for a restraining order in its statement.
Two of the families who filed the lawsuit said in interviews with The Washington Post this week that they are D.C. residents and don’t understand why they were accused of residency fraud. One mother said she was turned away when she tried to appeal her case at the superintendent’s office.
“What reason do they have to say that my daughter is not a D.C. resident? That reason was not given,” said Deneane Proctor, the mother of an Ellington student. “I just hope they throw these cases out, and leave these kids alone.”