- The Washington Times - Monday, November 19, 2012

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson stood before a room of high school athletes in a swanky Verizon Center dining room Monday and reminded them of their hard work, good grades and effort to “do what was good and right” in the run-up to their showdown in the annual Turkey Bowl.

What Ms. Henderson and other officials didn’t bring up was the underlying factor that put Anacostia in the city’s public high school football championship on Thanksgiving Day against Dunbar High School. The young men from Anacostia will play despite losing a playoff game, 40-20, against Woodrow Wilson because officials say Wilson used a player from Maryland and had to forfeit the two games in which he played.

The incident is hardly an isolated one. Residency fraud is a recurring problem in D.C. Public Schools, and city and school officials are turning up the heat through legislation, litigation and swift action against violators.

“One of the things they’ve been trying to do is make sure the rules are uniformly and properly applied across the city,” Mayor Vincent C. Gray said Monday, after news of Wilson’s disqualification spread over the weekend. “This is not the first situation this year.”

The decision to disqualify the Wilson team follows a similar situation last month at H.D. Woodson High School that led to the firing of the football coach after a player was deemed ineligible because of residency issues. Also last month, D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan sued a Maryland woman and a city resident who works at a D.C. public charter school on claims they conspired to let an out-of-District student attend McKinley Technology High School without paying tuition.

On Friday, the D.C. Public Charter School Board announced it will investigate residency fraud at its schools by contracting with external licensed investigators “to make sure that students who truly reside in the District are able to get the education they deserve.”

Although D.C. schools are showing signs of progress rehabilitating their persistently poor academic reputation, anecdotal evidence suggests residency fraud is often a matter of convenience for some parents, who unlawfully enroll their child in a city school because a grandparent or a caretaker lives nearby. WRC-TV (Channel 4) reported Monday that the principal at Wilson appealed his school’s disqualification on just those grounds, arguing that the primary residence of the student in question is with his grandparents in the District.

The D.C. Council passed a bill in January to increase fines for violating D.C. school residency rules and to refer cases to the attorney general. The bill also required the office of the state superintendent of education to lead investigations into residency fraud.

A 2011-2012 enrollment audit could not verify the residency of 198 out of the school system’s roughly 45,000 students. Seventy-two of those students were paying tuition to attend city schools.

Across the border, Prince George’s County officials say they have seen an uptick in students from the District and other surrounding areas attempting to enroll in their improving academic and athletic programs as Maryland becomes a recognized leader in public education, system spokesman Briant Coleman said.

“It definitely cuts both ways,” he said.

Ms. Henderson said she could not talk about the specifics of the cases out of Wilson and H.D. Woodson but assured reporters Monday that schools officials have a “robust” audit system to review residency documents.

“Our expectation is that adults will follow the rules so that our kids get to play,” Ms. Henderson said, adding, “Anytime we understand that somebody may not be a resident, we go out for a full investigation, which is why we are superconfident in what happened in this particular case.”

School officials took a closer look at Wilson player Nico Jaleel Robinson, 17, after he was arrested at his home in Greenbelt last month in connection with a series of robberies in College Park, a source familiar with the situation said. The teen, whose residence makes him ineligible for sports in D.C. Public Schools, played in two league games.

Before Monday’s luncheon, Ms. Henderson confirmed that the decision by DCPS “came about because, with the arrest, we learned of his residence in Maryland.”

The incident did little to dampen the spirits of players on both sides of the Acela Club room that sits high above the Washington Wizards basketball court, a classy setting for the luncheon that precedes the title game. While most of the talk surrounded the 40-plus-year Turkey Bowl tradition and character-building among young athletes, a boisterous Dunbar team made it clear they are the champs until someone knocks them off their pedestal.

“We’re not satisfied just being here,” Dunbar player Carlos Atkinson said from the podium. “In order for you to be the champs, you must beat the champs.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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