Jason L. Hurst
Jason L. Hurst
Enrico J. Mirabelli
Enrico J. Mirabelli

When parents receive a letter saying their child is losing a spot in one of the city’s best high schools because of address fraud, it’s certainly time to panic.

What’s worse is not knowing exactly what happened or how to fix it.

A South Side family found itself in that situation, and two attorneys helped resolve it last week. It is believed to be the first student eligibility matter to be prosecuted under Chicago Public Schools’ latest version of selective enrollment and magnet school procedures.

In July, Enrico J. Mirabelli, a partner at Beermann, Pritikin, Mirabelli, Swerdlove LLP, received an e-mail from his kids’ former second-grade teacher, looking for help for her friend, Sofia.

Sofia Navarrete received a letter from CPS that her son, Eliseo, was not eligible to return to Whitney M. Young Magnet High School for his sophomore year in the fall because of fraudulent information in his application.

The letter said there would be a hearing, and Navarrete’s parents or guardians could dispute the ineligibility finding and retain counsel.

“I know the value of a Whitney Young education,” said Mirabelli, whose three sons are all alumni of the school. “I didn’t want to see this kid deprived an opportunity that had been rightfully given.”

Mirabelli’s colleague, associate Jason L. Hurst, is also a Whitney Young graduate and agreed to work the case with him.

The legal department at CPS initially refused to give the attorneys a petition outlining the charges, a list of witnesses and other discovery, Mirabelli said. But that was only the beginning of the odd holes he said he discovered in the student eligibility policies and hearing system.

The Chicago Board of Education general counsel had determined Eliseo was not eligible to attend Whitney Young because the address on his November 2012 application did not match his enrollment address when he entered the school his freshman year.

CPS bases admission on test scores and a four-tier system based on socioeconomic factors and census tract information, Hurst said.

Under that system, first established in the 2010-2011 enrollment process, the top test scorers are automatically given the top 30 percent of available seats at selective enrollment schools. The remaining seats are divided equally among the highest scorers in each tier.

During the application process, Navarrete listed 1842 S. Racine Ave. as his address, which is in Tier 2. Combined with his test score of 845 out of 900 points, he was eligible for admission at Whitney Young.

But his school enrollment form in September 2013 listed 3654 W. 71st St. as his address, which is in Tier 3. Mirabelli said CPS alleged the family had “falsified (the address) for the sole purpose of obtaining an advantage in the selective enrollment process.”

A CPS investigator spoke with Navarrete about the address discrepancy in March, and she said her son moved to the Racine Avenue address to live with his father and paternal grandmother.

Sofia and her husband were having marital difficulties at the time, Mirabelli said, which was why the family had split up. By the end of March 2013, the family was together at the 71st Street residence.

The CPS selective enrollment admission policy refers to “the census tract in which an applicant resides at the time of application” and puts the onus on parents to update their current address “on a timely basis.” Mirabelli said it doesn’t have a legal definition for residence.

During the hearing, he cross-examined the investigator and the director of student assignment in CPS’s office of access and enrollment. Mirabelli said the director’s definition of “residence” is where a student slept at night.

The CPS investigator said he didn’t have a definition for residence and didn’t make a recommendation to the inspector general’s office on eligibility. He said he did not believe that Eliseo had falsified the information on his application.

Eliseo’s father also testified, confirmed his wife’s story and presented documents that showed his address change between September 2012 and March 2013. He stated he was not familiar with CPS’ tier system or how his son’s residence affected his school placement.

Based on the director’s definition of residence, Mirabelli argued that Eliseo is eligible for Whitney Young because the Racine Avenue address was correct at the time of his application. The hearing officer agreed, and CPS accepted this finding and sent Eliseo a letter last week to confirm his enrollment at Whitney Young.

Although Mirabelli and Hurst concentrate their practices on matrimonial law, Mirabelli is familiar with administrative hearings because he served on the city’s human resources board for 17 years.

The board of education policies and procedures for student removal hearings do not guarantee respondents a right to view evidence and has a clause that says “the formal and technical rules of civil/criminal procedure and evidence shall not apply student eligibility hearings.”

Although the legal department gave them the evidence “out of courtesy,” Mirabelli said that rule leaves respondents walking into the hearing with “both your arms tied behind your back.”

“The way this is designed, they put on their case and you have to react as fast as you can on the spot,” he said.

If that matter was in a courtroom, Mirabelli said, he would be calling for Rule 137 sanctions for a bad-faith pleading. He said fraud is a very serious charge, and if CPS had conducted its due diligence, it would have been clear the Navarretes had no intent to defraud the system.

“I think the city needs to have a definition of residence before prosecuting people for fraud under this system,” he said.

Board of education spokesman Bill McCaffrey said in a statement that the board took action against a total of 13 students for false information on applications. While he would not discuss specific outcomes, he said “very few cases have not been upheld.”

“CPS is determining the best options to prevent any false misrepresentation in the future,” McCaffrey said, “and this may include future audits of students in selective enrollment schools.”

The family is ecstatic with the outcome of the case, Mirabelli said. Eliseo was allowed to attend classes while the matter was pending.

Hurst said he hopes the case will encourage CPS to re-evaluate how it handles student eligibility hearings.

“It was definitely one of the more gratifying things I’ve done as an attorney,” Hurst said. “I’m happy to help out a fellow Whitney Young student.”