A Clayton County woman says she was only trying to do right by her teenage son when they moved into her sister’s home and enrolled him in the Henry County school system.
But that enrollment — at a time when area schools are loath to take nonresidents — was a costly move.
A Henry County Superior Court jury found both Tanja Revette Hale of Rex and her brother-in-law, James Lewis of McDonough, guilty of one count each of “making a false writing” this week in what is believed to be the first such school enrollment case to go to a jury trial in Henry County.
The case is notable in that the penalty could set a precedent for others convicted of the same offense, especially as students flee neighboring Clayton County’s loss of school accreditation.
Hale is adamant she did nothing wrong.
“I’ve never heard of a parent going to jail for taking care of their kids,” said Hale, a bartender and single mother of six children. “I’ve heard of parents going to jail for not taking care of their kids. But taking care of their kids? That’s crazy.”
As first-time felons, Hale and Lewis were placed on five years’ probation, and each was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine. In addition, they must complete 100 hours of community service and repay the Henry County school system nearly $1,200 in tuition costs from the first half of her son’s year at Louella High School.
Hale, 44, enrolled her son after completing an affidavit in December 2007 saying the two lived in McDonough with Lewis, a retired Atlanta police officer, and her sister, who is an attorney. Her sister, Clayton trial attorney Loletha Hale, said the family would file a motion for a new trial.
Hale said she moved because she had become increasingly worried about the company her son was keeping,not because of any concerns over Clayton’s accreditation.
To legally enroll, Hale’s 18-year-old son, Theodore Belcher, had to be living in the county with a legal guardian or parent. Hale contends she lived in the Lewis home but never had time to fill out mail-forwarding forms to confirm her new address. Loletha Hale backed up her sister’s contention that the two lived with her.
Tanja Hale’s son — her youngest child — now lives with her in Rex and is a senior at Forest Park High School.
Henry County School Board Chairman Ray Hudalla defended the prosecution.
“A lot of this was driven by the community,” he said. “The community demanded we be more accountable for educating students who actually live here rather than students who live someplace else.
“This isn’t a matter of trying to punish students. This is about taking care of Henry County citizens,” Hudalla said.
Confident they would be exonerated, Hale and Lewis had rejected an earlier deal that would have avoided a trial. The two didn’t retain a lawyer and represented themselves in court.
Lewis, 58, did not return calls seeking comment.
Under Georgia law, making a false writing is punishable by a maximum sentence of five years in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.
“When you make a false statement, that’s a felony,” said Tommy Floyd, the district attorney for the Flint Judicial Circuit.
This isn’t Hale’s first brush with the law. In 1999, she pleaded guilty and received probation after being arrested for a misdemeanor assault on Linda Tanner, who was the principal at Jonesboro High School at the time. Hale was also convicted of obstruction after struggling with a police officer during the arrest.
Clayton schools spokesman Charles White said he was unaware of the case involving Hale and Lewis and declined comment.
The district has lost about 3,500 students since losing accreditation, Superintendent John Thompson said last week.
With the anticipated exodus from Clayton, officials from nearby counties had expected to see a spike in illegally enrolled students.
Fulton, Fayette and Douglas have all discovered students illegally enrolled, with most being removed without criminal penalty. DeKalb County schools spokesman Dale Davis said he knew of no such cases.
In Fayette and Henry, law enforcement authorities confirm each residency affidavit.
Of the 84 students withdrawn from Fayette after being found to be improperly registered, just one case has been submitted for prosecution. Fayette has already this year received $2,200 in tuition restitution from a case prosecuted two years ago, said Melinda Berry-Dreisbach, a spokeswoman for Fayette County schools.
Henry County currently lists nearly 40,000 students, with 7,400 of those being served in portable classrooms.