Grade-schooler booted over residency

Chicago Tribune

Sebastian Fortson didn't understand why he couldn't go to school. He missed his friends, computer time and recess.

Until last week, when the governor intervened, the first-grader had been barred from class since Dec. 10. Willow School in Homewood, Ill., contends he does not live within the district's boundaries.

His parents, who are amicably divorced, insist that he resides there with his mother in a light blue trilevel home. But the boy often spends three or four nights a week with his father in nearby Beecher, Ill., because his mother is a nurse who works nights.

Administrators don't dispute that Jennifer Fortson, a room mom and library volunteer, lives in Homewood. But they are challenging Sebastian's address, insisting that he does not meet the district's residency requirements.

It's where you sleep that counts -- what the state school code calls the "regular fixed night-time abode." Beecher has refused enrollment because, under the divorce settlement, Sebastian's father is not the custodial parent.

"He's got to live somewhere," said an exasperated Sean Fortson, 36, Sebastian's dad and a firefighter who also has a nontraditional schedule. "If this drags on, we're concerned that he'll have to repeat first grade."

That left the boy on hiatus until last Wednesday; Gov. Rod Blagojevich stepped in until a court could act. On Thursday, Cook County Circuit Judge Mary Rochford ordered that Sebastian be allowed in class while his case is pending.

The Fortsons are suing to force the district to reinstate the boy.

The situation illuminates two realities of 21st-century life: divorce and crackdowns on fraudulent enrollments. Cash-strapped districts are getting tougher on "crashers" in an effort to ensure that tax dollars are spent on students who legitimately live within their boundaries. Homewood spent more than $9,200 per pupil last year.

According to court affidavits, the parents said they were told that if Sebastian tried to return to Willow, he would be removed by police. On Nov. 5, the district asked for $2,580 in back tuition for the first two months of the school year.

"It doesn't make any sense," said Jennifer Fortson, 33. "He's a social kid who loves learning. . . . I just want to get back to our normal lives."

The state had to cover two days of tuition until the judge issued her preliminary ruling. The next court date is Feb 22.

"The judge is making a decision just to hold things in place, before she even looks at the facts," said John Izzo, a lawyer for the school district.

"It is gratifying to know that the family will owe the back tuition if the district ultimately prevails," Izzo added.

The Fortsons, who divorced in 2005, previously lived in Calumet City, where their house is in foreclosure. In August 2007, Jennifer Fortson and her son moved in with her grandmother, the boy's great-grandmother, because of the older woman's failing health. Sebastian enrolled in Willow School.

When both of his parents have work conflicts, Sebastian spends the night with his maternal grandmother, who lives in Harvey, Ill. On those days, his mom and dad pick him up in the morning and either get him to school or to the bus stop.

This child-care arrangement might benefit their son -- "It means he never has to get shuffled to strangers," said his mother -- but it doesn't add up to enough nights under one roof to satisfy Homewood.

Administrators became suspicious in October when Sebastian "told someone at his school that he really doesn't live in town, he just comes here for school," according to a district hearing officer's report.

"Shockingly, the offhand comment from a 6-year-old boy was enough to trigger an investigation," said Jennifer Hansen, the Fortsons' attorney.

Conflicts over residency are not uncommon, but what makes this case unusual is the length of time the child was out of class, said Matthew Vanover, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education.

At a district hearing in November, John Carney, Homewood's residency officer, testified that the Homewood house was first watched on Oct. 31 from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. with no sign of Sebastian, yet the youngster was in school that day.

Surveillance over the next three school days by a retired police officer who works for the district yielded similar results, according to the report.

"In front of the house was a blue Ford registered to a Mr. Sean Fortson. . . . When the bus returned the children after school, Sebastian walked directly to the blue Ford and they drove away. Neither the child nor the driver went into the home."

Jennifer Fortson, a neonatal transport nurse, said two of her co-workers were on medical and maternity leave during that time, requiring that she work extra 12-hour shifts, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Even with all the shuttling, "Sebastian still spends more of his nights in Homewood than anywhere else," she said.

The report goes on to say that on days Sebastian is with other adults, "he does not do his homework, take his meals or sleep at the Homewood address" and therefore he is not a legal resident of District 153.

School districts across the Chicago metropolitan area are aggressively pursuing those who violate residency rules. Homewood hired an additional part-time investigator this year and weeds out about 20 to 25 students per year, Carney said.

The Illinois State Board of Education determines a pupil's residency based on who has legal custody.

This is not a case of a sham address, Hansen said. "This is about child-care arrangements . . . and that you have a 6-year-old boy who needs to be getting an education . . . and he's being deprived of that."

Asked how he felt about being home, Sebastian said, "I didn't want anyone to know." He'd rather show off his lunch bags -- one sporting a Chicago Bears logo, the other a Darth Vader image -- and his Pokemon figure. While on forced vacation, he asked a reporter: "Could you tell Max and Tyler that I miss them?"

Sebastian's parents are relieved he's back in school.

"This is what we wanted all along," Jennifer Fortson said. "We didn't think we could take him being bounced out again."

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