Members of the senior class at Northwestern High School in Prince George’s County were recently summoned to the auditorium to discuss what they needed to do before getting their diplomas in the spring.
They received information about what scores they needed to pass the Maryland High School Assessments exam, what they could expect to pay in senior dues and how to prepare for college. Then, before they left the auditorium, they were handed a letter demanding verification of their residency.
According to the letter, students whose families did not provide a current lease or mortgage statement and a utility bill, pay stub or other proof of legal residence within the Hyattsville school’s boundary would be forced to withdraw. They had two weeks to respond.
The letter confused many in the school of 2,400 students and was particularly baffling to parents who didn’t understand why — in the middle of the school year — the senior class of more than 550 was being asked to prove residency.
“I was a little shocked that something so serious would be submitted at the last minute,” said Benita Tolson, the sister and guardian of a 12th-grader at Northwestern. She said that her sister has been a student at the school since ninth grade and that her address has always been the same.
School system officials said the request was part of a regular records audit to verify the addresses of about 300 Northwestern students. Prince George’s County schools chief Kevin M. Maxwell said in an interview that he was initially unaware of the request handed to Northwestern students but that he later learned it was an attempt to update the records of those who had discrepancies or incomplete files.
“Some of them were seniors, and some weren’t seniors,” Maxwell said.
Because each school receives funding based on its student population, schools must ensure that the students attending classes live within the specific school’s boundary. Such audits can help identify budget shortfalls or discrepancies that reallocate resources to benefit students.
The letter that Northwestern seniors received was signed by Edgar Batenga, the school’s principal, and Tierra Herring, the school’s registrar. Batenga and Herring declined requests for comment on the letter.
Several students and teachers said seniors were told during morning announcements that all seniors had to return the paperwork.
Students and parents said they were surprised by the request. The Wildcat Press, the Northwestern High student newspaper, wrote on the day of the initial deadline for paperwork — Nov. 22 — that the letter had created a stir on campus.
Carol Corneilse, whose son is a junior, said she was alarmed by the request, wondering about the legality and appropriateness of forcing students to prove their residency midyear. She said no one explained it to her.
“I would just be really curious to know the reason for this,” Corneilse said. “I’ve never heard of something like this before.”
Mary Whelton, a senior, said she couldn’t recall her brother, who graduated last year, being asked to submit proof of residency.
“It didn’t make sense to me,” she said.
Whelton said she did not attend the assembly but heard morning announcements from Batenga about the requirement. She said friends told her that she needed to pick up the letter at the registrar’s office. She said that she took the paperwork home and that her mother gathered the necessary information. Whelton brought it to school, took it to the registrar’s office and was told that one of her parents had to bring in the documents, she said.
Three Northwestern teachers, who did not want to be identified, because they were not authorized to discuss the issue, said the deadline for paperwork was extended until Dec. 13 after complaints poured in.
“The students are frantic,” one teacher said.