Outside of Philadelphia resides the Lower Moreland Township School District, which a few years ago became the center of media attention for a case that brought to light questions about segregation and race in public schools. But Pine Road Elementary School doesn't want to talk about it. In fact, if you're a reporter, they'll just hang up on you if you try to ask them.
"We don't talk about that with the press," an employee was heard telling their boss recently. "Tell him you don't know anything and hang up on him."
As soon as the receptionist returned to the phone, a reporter told her that he had heard everything her boss had said. The conversation ended with an awkward click.
Salon was reaching out to the school district because of Hamlet Garcia.
In 2011, Garcia, a Pennsylvanian who just wanted his child to go to a good school, was arrested and charged with theft of services. Garcia, along with his wife Olesia and father-in-law Grigori Sofitchouk, faced felony charges. Hamlet Garcia and Sofitchouk later pleaded to a misdemeanor and had to pay more than $10,000 in restitution.
The Garcias claimed they were separated at the time and that their daughter was staying with her mother at her maternal grandfather's house, which fell within the district's boundaries. The district, on the other hand, argued that this was a ruse in order to get their daughter into their high quality school.
The case — which its critics have characterized as symptomatic of a large trend in which affluent districts attempt to reverse decades of American education policy and welcome a new generation of segregation — has raised serious implications not only for the state of public education in our country, but for the way in which race impacts community decisions about who should benefit from our resources.
"If you come to Montgomery County," Garcia told Salon, "this can happen to you."
Garcia said he was targeted by the legal authorities in Montgomery County because they thought he was an "easy target" due to his half-black, half-Cuban heritage. He added that the arrest was an effort by Montgomery County officials to "send a message" to blacks and Latinos.
"Montgomery County is a very powerful county in Pennsylvania," Garcia said. "Wealthy and very powerful. The attorneys in Pennsylvania — no one wanted to try my case or support me. They told me to my face, 'We can't continue to represent you because Montgomery County is calling now and they want us to drop your case.'"
Garcia said his lawyers told him there was a good chance he would be found guilty not because of what he did, but because some of the jurors had expressed doubts about whether he was a legal citizen — he was — and there were concerns they'd find him guilty simply for that reason. Because Pennsylvania was facing negative publicity as a result of the case, prosecutors weren't eager to give him the harshest possible sentence. And so, both sides were willing to accept an offer to plead him down to a lesser charge.
Garcia wasn't the first parent to face legal trouble for allegedly trying to "steal" an education for his child. In 2009, an upstate New York woman named Yolanda Hill was charged with two felonies for enrolling her children in a suburban district. In 2011 , a homeless mother in Connecticut was arrested for sending her 5-year-old son to a school in Norwalk because she was from nearby Bridgeport. Also in 2011, a special education aide in Ohio named Kelley Williams-Bolar spent nine days in jail after a records tampering conviction for sending her two daughters to the school district where her father lived.
School districts will say that having out-of-district students can be a drain on their resources and, on a theoretical level, does constitute an act of theft from the taxpayers whose money supports those districts.
That said, there have been some positive developments in the aftermath of Garcia's case. A new Connecticut law has excluded sending your child to the wrong school district as an offense that can be treated as larceny, and Garcia told Salon that he has worked with Pennsylvania legislators on a similar bill for his own state.
But there's a lesson for school districts that want to avoid talking to the press about uncomfortable subjects: If you're going to blow them off, make sure you cover the telephone receiver.