Duke Ellington: CLC Fights for Families Accused (Unfairly) of Fraud

You arrive home from a busy, stressful day at work. As you walk in the door, you riffle through your mail. You see a letter from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). It looks official, so you open it.

You read it in disbelief.

You’ve been accused of residency fraud. You’re told that you and your family live out-of-state (even though you live in the District) and that your child can no longer attend the school they love—and that you owe thousands in tuition payment.

Various versions of this nightmare scenario unfolded for hundreds of Duke Ellington families in the spring and summer of 2018, when 219 families were accused of residency fraud, the vast majority of whom were innocent.

An Attack on Families and a Call to CLC

“OSSE dropped a bomb when they sent out a legal notice to more than 30 percent of families with children attending Duke Ellington,” said Buck Logan, CLC special counsel. “The notice was brief. It basically told families, ‘we’ve conducted an investigation, you’re guilty, your child is not eligible to attend Ellington, and you owe us a huge check. Period.’ And OSSE took this drastic step without even trying to speak to the families first.”

Duke Ellington families immediately banded together—and based on our proven track record of advocating for DC families, reached out to CLC for help.

CLC staff including Logan, along with partners like Advocates for Justice and Education (AJE) and attorney Greg Smith, began to organize our months-long effort to clear innocent families’ names.

“Many families have really complicated dynamics they are already managing,” Logan shared. “For example, one mom, Linda*, moved her family to DC to care for Linda’s ailing mother. They moved in with Linda’s mother. While they didn’t have a written DC lease, they were legal residents. It’s really scary for a family to confront these accusations during an already stressful time.”

In another case, a child’s birth parents, who lived out-of-state, could no longer care for her. A family friend, Patrice, welcomed the child into her DC home, becoming the child’s caregiver. The child enrolled at Ellington and was thriving, but then Patrice received the letter claiming that the child wasn’t a resident of the District and could no longer attend Ellington.

Our team knows that government policies and practice often fail to address the needs of families like Linda’s and Patrice’s, which don’t follow the simple two parent family structure.

An Impossible Situation for DC Residents

The Duke Ellington families were facing a daunting situation. They had been told their kids couldn’t attend Ellington and were facing large financial penalties. They didn’t understand their rights or how to navigate the legal process to correct the false accusations. They also faced an alarming “Catch 22.”

Since they were accused of living elsewhere, their children—who worked hard to gain admission into one of the most exclusive schools in the city—wouldn’t be able to attend school in DC. However, since they live in the District, they would also be barred from Virginia and Maryland public schools.

That’s why, within weeks of the initial accusations, the CLC team and AJE presented the first of two parent training sessions at Duke Ellington.

Because there were more families in need of legal assistance than CLC or our allies could represent, we created a do-it-yourself manual for families to successfully represent themselves. During our two trainings, we walked parents through the process and offered individualized advice. Then, we accepted as many families as we could for full CLC representation.  

As a result, a vast majority of students were fully cleared of the charges. Most of these accusations were based on faulty investigations—something as simple as a parent formerly having a Virginia license was enough to lead to an accusation of residency fraud.

“The bureaucracy that is supposed to be helping students, in many cases, is not,” Logan explained. “That’s one of the reasons we’re here. To make a real difference for families.”   

*Children’s Law Center works hard to protect our clients’ confidentiality. The client's name has been changed. All other details are true.