Aspen schools forced to disenroll students for falsifying residency

Jeanne McGovern
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – At least a dozen students were enrolled – or attempted to enroll – in Aspen public schools using falsified residency documents. The students in question have since been disenrolled or will be at the end of the school year, and other non-legitimate students could suffer the same consequences before summer rolls around, according to Aspen School District officials.

“We have disenrolled students and we will continue to, if necessary,” said Aspen Superintendent John Maloy. “There are a lot of sides to this issue; some may talk about overcrowding, or what a specific family is saying or doing. That is not necessarily germane.

“But if the issue is that families are attempting to gain access to our schools fraudulently, it is being addressed.”

At Aspen Middle School, one student has been disenrolled thus far this school year. At the elementary school, two students have been disenrolled and six more will be forced to leave at the end of the school year if their families do not, in fact, move to Aspen. If these students have siblings at other Aspen schools, they too will be disenrolled.

Aspen High School officials nabbed about five students attempting to enroll in the school with falsified documents before the school year even began. Since then, no student has been disenrolled; however, one family, which has at least one child at AES and another at Aspen High, is currently under investigation for allegedly lying about where they live.

While downvalley students are allowed to attend the Aspen public schools, they must apply and be admitted as out-of-district students on a space-available basis. If there is not room, they are put on a wait list.

According to the school principals, there were few – if any – spots open to new out-of-district students this school year; the scenario is likely the same for 2011-12. It is a situation that apparently led some families to lie about where they live by providing fraudulent documents to the school district.

“If you are straight up and honest, we might be able to work it out for you to come to school here,” said AHS Principal Art Abelmann. “But I do believe that if you lie, it might well blow up in your face.

“I might be being duped, but the bottom line is: It’s just not a good message to give to your kids … and we will eventually figure it out.”

In fact, the situation – which some parents believe the district is turning a blind eye to – has led to a growing number of complaints to school officials. When a complaint is received, it is investigated and appropriate action is taken, Maloy said.

“I can tell you we take this very seriously; we do not turn a blind eye to any complaint we receive,” he said, adding that the current investigation process includes interviews with parents, multiple forms of residency documents, and, if necessary, home visits. (All students are required to provide proof of residency on an annual basis, which is reviewed by school support staff and not investigated unless a complaint is logged.)

Falsifying residency – which is a crime punishable by law – is not unheard of in school districts. In fact, an Ohio mother of two received a 10-day jail sentence for altering residency documents; in other places, parents are being fined, sued and otherwise punished for lying about where they live to gain admission to a certain school.

While Aspen has yet to pursue such extreme measures, school resource officers, which include an Aspen police officer and a Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy, have been called in to investigate. And Maloy concedes that if suspected fraud becomes more prevalent, other steps might need to be taken.

“We have an exemplary school, and it’s a feather in our cap that parents want their children to come here. But we have to take the time to be sure families are not being disingenuous, especially as the school climate changes in other places,” he said, adding that a letter to parents explaining the district’s out-of-district policy and “consequences if they choose to disregard the policy” is probably in order.

“I think we need to be aware that this problem could grow, and prepared that if it becomes greater than what we are able to handle on our own, we might need to take legal steps. This is not ideal for anyone, however.”

Parents agree they do not want to see educators being forced to police families, but they also want to be sure the system is fair and someone is being held accountable.

“First, I think the message these parents who are lying are giving to their children is unforgivable, but that’s a parenting issue not a school issue,” said one parent, who asked not to be named. “But I feel that the schools are getting more crowded. … I am 100 percent fine with that if the kids are from Aspen or out-of-district legally, but if people are lying about where they live it’s just not right.

“It impacts everyone who is being honest. And I think everyone would hate for it to become something that ultimately hurts the kids.”