A federal court judge on Wednesday ruled against a Stratford women who claimed her constitutional rights were violated when she was arrested for illegally enrolling her grandchildren in a public school system.
The ruling came a month after the state adopted a law that would have prevented her arrest.
Judge Michael P. Shea sided with the Stratford Board of Education over a 2011 case in which the town prosecuted Marie Menard for enrolling her grandchildren in the town’s school system while they resided in Milford with their mother, Ana Wade. Wade also was arrested.
Menard, who has since resolved her criminal case through a court diversionary program, filed a complaint in federal court claiming the town violated her right to equal protection because they prosecuted her but declined to seek charges in similar cases.
The judge ruled quickly in the case. After hearing oral arguments Wednesday morning, he took a 10-minute recess then returned and essentially dismissed Menard’s case.
Shea agreed with the town’s attorney, Alexandria Voccio, who argued that the town had discretion over which cases it chooses to pursue. In this case, Stratford based its decision to press charges against Menard based on the amount of documented evidence against her. The town declined to prosecute in some other cases in an effort to avoid negative publicity, Voccio said.
“The defendants have articulated a rational basis for treating the plaintiff differently than other individuals,” the judge said. “. . . The court sees several conceivable and legitimate reasons why the defendants would seek to avoid negative attention.”
Menard’s attorney, Josephine S. Miller, disagreed.
“They have waffled back and forth and it seems to me that that leaves citizens like Mrs. Menard at the mercy of the sovereign,” she said.
The ruling comes just a month after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed a new law that would have prevented Menard’s arrest by taking the issue of misrepresenting school enrollment out of the hands of the courts.
Connecticut law previously considered enrolling children in a school system where they did not reside to be a theft of educational services, chargeable under larceny statutes. Under the new law, which takes effect in October, Menard’s case would have been handled by an administrative hearing officer. The law allows the decisions of those hearing officers to be appealed to the state Board of Education.
Rep. Bruce Morris, a Norwalk Democrat who supports the new law, said the hearing process should have been what Menard experienced rather than being arrested. He said it will protect Connecticut families going forward.
“A person can no longer be arrested, faced with 20 years imprisonment, a crime that was equivalent to bank robbery, for trying to get your children an education,” he said.
Miller said she was disappointed by the judge’s ruling and would look at her client’s options for appeal. Although Connecticut’s new law will change the process here in the state, its passage does not impact Menard. An appeal also could have implications for similar cases outside Connecticut. Since other states don’t have the same new legislation as Connecticut, the case could have broader implications in those other states.
“The issue is still out there for many others,” Miller said. “I’m sure similar things are still happening to other families.”
Following the ruling, Voccio said she felt the judge made the right call on a difficult case.
“It’s a tough issue, obviously in terms of what happened for this family, but the decision was the right one in this case,” she said.
Menard and supporters gathered on the courthouse steps before the hearing for a press conference. The event, which included other parents who have been arrested in similar cases, was organized by Gwen Samuel, founder of the Connecticut Parents Union.
Samuel called Menard a “proud grandmother” who was arrested by the town she lives in for “stealing a public education.”
“What made this case unique was she is a homeowner and a taxpayer in the city that arrested her. The argument that I have heard related to educational theft is that it is a drain on the district” and the districts’ taxpayers, she said.
Morris, who spoke at the press conference and sat in the courtroom during Wednesday’s proceedings, said he believes that the disparities between the state’s school districts are the real problem.
“We have taken on one part of this equation by decriminalizing this issue. The latter part is we need to make all schools equal so that no parent has to make this type of decision,” he said.