Grand jury absolves parents

By Clay Wilson

In April, James Carter said he thought the Henry County School System's message of its seriousness about residency requirements was getting out.

On Friday, McDonough attorney David Slemons agreed – although he noted that the message may not be getting out in just the way the system intended.

A Henry County grand jury refused Thursday to indict three people on charges that they falsified residency affidavits so that their children could attend county schools.

Maria Michelle Clara of Henry County, Michelle Doss of Spalding County and Lynda Odom of Clayton County were charged with false swearing. School system officials alleged that they had signed affidavits saying they resided in Henry County when, in fact, they didn't.

False swearing on an affidavit is a felony under state law, punishable by up to five years in prison. School officials, citing the system's explosive growth, announced their intention in April to prosecute parents who falsely swore on their residence affidavits.

Clara, Doss and Odom were the only three of 13 people the system accused of false swearing who were actually charged with the crime. In April, Henry County Magistrate Judge Robert Godwin dismissed the charges against the other 10.

After the April hearing, Carter, the family services outreach worker who prosecuted the cases for the school system, said he was unprepared for some of the legal issues involved with presenting the cases.

On Friday, attorneys on both sides of the case said the legal issues probably determined the jury's decision not to indict the three women.

"I think as much as anything, the law they used was so narrow in scope, it would be next to impossible to pinpoint if a person was moving in and out of a jurisdiction," said Slemons.

He said the school system would have had to prove that Doss, his client, was not living in Henry County on the specific date when she signed the affidavit – not that she signed it and then moved out of the county.

Slemons said Doss was living in the county when she signed the document.

Flint Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tommy Floyd also said the specifics of the law may have stymied the school system in this case.

"I don't think there was any reluctance on the part of the grand jury to indict where the evidence was clear, but in these cases the evidence wasn't clear," he said.

"This was the first time that the school system had attempted the criminal route, and a criminal presentation is a lot different from a presentation to an administrative board (such as a school disciplinary panel)."

However, he said, "Some of those problems, we've discussed them and they've been corrected, and any new cases will be reviewed by people who are more familiar with criminal justice."

The district attorney also said that the grand jury's refusal to indict in this case shouldn't be seen as carte-blanche permission to skirt school system residency requirements.

"I'm trying to make it clear that if you live outside the county and you're trying to enroll a child in the school system, don't go out and lie on your affidavit, because there's a chance you could be prosecuted," he said.

School system spokeswoman Cindy Foster also said that – for now at least – the system is still taking its hard-line stance on proving county residency.

"The policy is under review, but the intention of the policy hasn't changed," she said. "The (school) board still feels strongly that Henry County tax dollars should go to pay for Henry County students."

Foster said the school board won't make any significant changes in the current policy until the late fall.

"I would assume that means that there could be others" who are prosecuted, she said.

Slemons, though, said he thinks the system should have taken another route to let parents know it is serious about its residence policy.

"I think the better way to have addressed it – would have been – to put it in the newspaper, because what happened with the way they went about it (is) they were 0 for 13."

Still, he noted, "I do believe the message got out, so if that was their goal, they were successful."