In mid-August 2016, social media outrage over the light sentencing of collegiate athlete David Becker (who was sentenced to two years probation over sexual assault charges) led to the recirculation of images about a woman named Tanya McDowell, who was purportedly jailed for the crime of attempting to educate her child while homeless:
On Facebook, users typically contrasted the respective sentencings of Becker and swimmer Brock Turner (who received a six-month jail sentence after he was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman and was released after only serving three months) with McDowell’s memetic circumstances, expressing frustration at what looked to be justice clearly applied unfairly — although not many viewers seemed to have investigated whether there was any truth to the assertion that McDowell was jailed in 2016 solely for enrolling her child in school without a fixed home address.
According to April 2011 news coverage, McDowell was arrested and charged with first-degree larceny and conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny in April 2011 after she allegedly falsified a residency affidavit and enrolled her young son at a Connecticut school. Initial reports described the arrest as an extreme and troubling outlier with respect to the severity of the charges levied, and reactions among officials party to the situation were mixed:
A homeless woman from Bridgeport who enrolled her 6-year-old son at a Norwalk elementary school has become the first in the city to be charged with stealing more than $15,000 for the cost of her child’s education.
Tonya McDowell, 33, whose last known address was 66 Priscilla St., Bridgeport, was charged with first-degree larceny and conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny for allegedly stealing $15,686 from Norwalk schools. She was released after posting a $25,000 bond.
McDowell’s babysitter, Ana Rebecca Marques, was also evicted from her Roodner Court public housing apartment for providing documents to enroll the child at Brookside Elementary School.
The police investigation into the residency began after Norwalk Housing Authority attorney Donna Lattarulo filed a complaint alleging McDowell registered her son at Brookside, but actually lived in an apartment on Priscilla Street in Bridgeport.
As part of the evidence presented in the complaint, police received an affidavit of residency signed by McDowell attesting that she lived in the Roodner Court public housing complex on Ely Ave.
When she was interviewed by police in the case, McDowell admitted to living in Bridgeport at the time she registered her son in Norwalk schools.
McDowell’s arrest marks the first time Norwalk Board of Education Vice Chairman Glenn Iannaccone has heard of someone facing criminal charges for sending their child to Norwalk schools.
“This is the first time I have heard something like this where there has been an arrest. Other allegations like this have been handled by the central office. I’m not sure if the police have been involved,” Iannaccone said.
Mayor Richard Moccia said that he was aware that an investigation was proceeding in the case and that an arrest was possible.
“This now sends a message to other parents that may have been living in other towns and registering their kids with phony addresses,” he said.
In February 2012 it was reported that McDowell had been sentenced to five years in prison and five additional years of probation, an outcome often described as related to her initial high-profile arrest. However, the criminal charges levied against McDowell escalated between April 2011 and her February 2012 sentencing because several weeks after McDowell’s school-related arrest, she was re-arrested on charges that she had sold drugs to undercover officers on multiple occasions and was involved with promoting prostitution:
Tanya McDowell, the Bridgeport mom arrested for sending her 5-year-old son to a Norwalk elementary school and while out on bond was picked up for selling drugs to undercover officers five times, was sentenced to five years in prison and another five years of probation after pleading guilty to drug and larceny charges.
In April , McDowell received national sympathy from education advocates after Norwalk police arrested her for sending her son to Brookside Elementary School in Norwalk while they alleged that she was really living in Bridgeport.
McDowell claimed that she was homeless at the time — spending many nights in her van — and wanted a good education for her son, A.J., while she was working in Stamford.
Several weeks later, she was arrested for selling drugs to Norwalk undercover officers on five occasions in Norwalk and Bridgeport.
When she was picked up on the drug charges, police found her in front of Brookside Elementary School holding 30 small bags of marijuana and 23 small bags of crack cocaine, prosecutor Tiffany Lockshier said during her sentencing hearing.
In Bridgeport, McDowell pleaded guilty to two counts of sale of narcotics to undercover officers in Bridgeport and when she is sentenced faces up to five years in jail for those convictions.
Another article reported that a judge admonished McDowell for conflating the distinctly separate charges during a 2012 court appearance:
“Who would have thought that wanting a good education for my son would put me in this predicament?” McDowell lamented as she stood handcuffed before Superior Court Judge Frank Iannotti. “I have no regrets seeking a better education for him, I do regret my participation in this drug case.”
The 34-year-old Bridgeport woman pleaded guilty in a Norwalk court to charges of first-degree larceny and conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny for illegally enrolling her 6-year-old son in Norwalk public school despite living here.
That case drew protests by residents and civil rights groups who claimed McDowell was being persecuted for her attempt to get a better education for her son.
Iannotti retorted that the Norwalk case had nothing to do with why McDowell was before him.
“This case is about the convictions for the sale of narcotics to an undercover police officer,” the judge said. “I think you understand that because that is really the essence of what has gotten you into the predicament you find yourself today.”
It was true Turner and Becker received controversially light sentences in two unrelated cases involving sexual assault and college athletics in mid-2016, and it is accurate to say McDowell was initially (and perhaps unusually) arrested on charges pertaining to improper school enrollment. But when images about McDowell became popular as social commentary in mid-2016, those images primarily and inaccurately represented the outcome of her case as purely related to the improper enrollment of her son in a school rather than her subsequent arrests on charges related to the sale of hard drugs and promoting prostitution.
Goodwin, Liz. “Outrage Around Homeless Mom Charged for Sending Son to Better School.”
Yahoo! News. 25 April 2011.
Irby, Kate. “Accused Rapist Sentenced to No Jail Time So He Can Have a ‘College Experience.'”
Miami Herald. 23 August 2016.
Nickerson, John. “Bridgeport Woman Arrested for Registering Son in Norwalk School.”
Stamford Advocate. 16 April 2011.
Nickerson, John. “Affidavit: Tanya McDowell Offered to Sell Drugs, Pimp Out Prostitutes to Undercover Cops.”
Stamford Advocate. 14 June 2011.
Nickerson, John. “5 Years in Prison for Tanya McDowell.”
Stamford Advocate. 22 February 2012.
Tepfer, Daniel. “Tanya McDowell Sentenced to 5 Years in Prison.”
Connecticut Post. 27 March 2012.