Last year, more than 300 cases of possible residency violations were investigated at Oak Park and River Forest High School. But only 17 of those investigations led to the conclusion that residency rules were being violated.

In five of those cases parents fought the conclusion in hearings before the school’s board of education. Delays in adjudicating those cases allowed the students to remain at OPRF. Now, though, the school has billed those parents for more than $88,000 in tuition.

Janel Bishop, assistant principal for student health and safety, said the students were allowed to finish out the school year because their cases were adjudicated so close to the end of the year.

Cases that end up before the board are instances where parents dispute the school’s findings. Some residency cases never make it before the board because families remove their children once the school determines their residency is invalid.

Cases are investigated via tips that students are residing outside of Oak Park or River Forest, or if residency documents-leases or bills, for instance-are found to be questionable. The registrar’s office might also flag a case for investigators after spotting inconsistencies in residency documents.

An OPRF residency report for the 2009-2010 school years shows that 337 residency cases were investigated. Of those cases, just 17 were found to be in violation but five families chose to take their case to the school board. If an investigation reveals that a student should not be enrolled, the school charges tuition for the time they attended.

Students are required to live within the boundary of the high school district. The school has two residency confirmation officers, or RCOs, who conduct investigations. Those cases sometimes entail surveillance and home visits.

Jacques Conway, a member of the Dist. 200 school board and a former Oak Park cop, was a residency officer for five years in the late 1990s. Conway said that while there are cases that slip through the cracks, the school catches more than people assume. That fact, he noted, also contradicts a long-held view by some that OPRF is rife with students who shouldn’t be there.

“I’ve heard that for years,” Conway said, “that there are hundreds of kids who shouldn’t be attending this school. Well, how do you know it is hundreds?”

RCOs, Conway added, are paid a salary and not an hourly wage to conduct investigations.

If, for instance, a student claims to live in River Forest but the school comes to believe that he or she lives outside that boundary, an RCO will watch residences in both areas to see if the student leaves or arrives. Conway said they don’t watch for students getting off of public transportation. Surveillance can take place hours before the school day starts, and also throughout the day and into the evening.

During home visits, an RCO looks for a “lived-in’ appearance and questions the parent or guardian. Conway said some parents will go to extremes to enroll their kids in a school like OPRF.

“Even though it’s a criminal offense, I can understand the reasons why they would do that. Unfortunately, education is not equal for every child,” he said. “I think it’s a slap on our educational system that families have to cheat the system and go to these extremes to get their kid a quality education.”

The amount of tuition the school is seeking for ’09-’10 is pretty consistent from year to year, said Nate Rouse, OPRF’s principal. He added that the school will sue for tuition and has done so in the past.

Rouse said an individual case could involve more than one student in a family, and the school handles all investigations thoroughly. Checking the residency status of students is a time-consuming process Rouse admits, but is one that needs to be done. Rouse said the school doesn’t rush to judgment, and some tips, prove fruitless.

“We still have to do our due diligence. Sometimes tips don’t pan out, but when they do, we investigate.”

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com

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