Seventeen years ago, Lucy and Salvatore Cuocci moved their young family to Fair Lawn to avail themselves of its highly-rated school system.
They had hoped to see their children climb Fair Lawn’s academic ladder and eventually graduate from the high school, bedecked in crimson and gray.
But in January, just over a year away from reaching that milestone, the Cuocci’s dream came to a crashing halt.
While going through a divorce last year, the Cuocci’s were forced to short sell their Southern Drive home to avoid foreclosure. Salvatore found a place in Hawthorne. Lucy had been living in an apartment in Fair Lawn with her son, also named Salvatore (Torey for short), but a recent rent hike proved too much of a financial hurdle to overcome.
“Between rent, car insurance, car payments, electrical bills, food and all that, and trying to keep a 16-year-old with clothes on his back, it’s very hard,” said Lucy, now single and working as a medical technician. “I just couldn’t do it anymore."
As of Jan. 19, when Lucy moved from Fair Lawn to live with a relative in Lyndhurst, her son lost his right to attend Fair Lawn High School, where he was a second-semester junior.
But Torey continued attending the school surreptitiously, through the efforts of his mother, who dropped him off and picked him up from school each day.
Upon finishing her emergency room night shift at Hackensack University Medical Center at 7 a.m., Lucy would drive to Hawthorne and pick Torey up from his father’s place, take him to Fair Lawn, and then return home to Lyndhurst. She’d do it all over again at 2 p.m. at the end of the school day, before heading back to the ER that evening. This was their drill, five days a week.
“I’m constantly back and forth,” she said. “I don’t mind it, as long as this child gets where he has to go.”
The routine worked temporarily, but the district eventually caught on after school mail sent to Lucy’s former residence started coming back undeliverable.
“They went to go talk to my landlord and my landlord told them that I moved out Jan. 19,” Lucy said.
The district launched its disenrollment process and sought to remove Torey from the high school.
The Cuocci’s plead their case before the Board of Education in a private session Thursday. The family was informed by letter soon thereafter that Torey would not be allowed to return to Fair Lawn.
Superintendent Bruce Watson declined to comment on the case, but said there’s a 21-day period from the time the board votes to disenroll a student before that disenrollment becomes official.
Watson said it’s the Board's policy that if a student is not a resident of Fair Lawn, he should not be enrolled in the Fair Lawn School District. That is, however, unless he's a high school senior.
“If you are a senior and your family moves out of town any time while you’re in your senior year, as long as you’re actively going to school, the [Board of Education] would let you finish your senior year,” Watson explained.
Torey Cuocci missed the cut by a few months.
“I think it is pretty much plain and simple bull----,” Lucy said of the board’s decision to disenroll her son.
“We didn’t intentionally cheat this town like other people do, who come in, register their kids, they live elsewhere, they don’t pay taxes here in town,” added the elder Salvatore. “We’ve paid taxes here for 17 years.
“Every parent tries to do the best for their child,” he continued. “Our kids should not be punished for what the economy has given us. That’s how I feel.”
The Cuocci's said their son is taking the news pretty hard.
“He says, ‘Dad, I want to graduate with my friends,’” Salvatore said. “You can see it in his face and his expressions. These are kids he’s grown up with his whole life. ... He’s played basketball, baseball, football with all these kids. It’s like a brotherhood. And now all of a sudden it’s being taken away.”
In order to stay close to his friends in Fair Lawn, Torey will likely live with his father and attend Hawthorne High School, the Cuocci’s said.
"For him to go all the way down [in Lyndhurst] a half-hour away from his friends, I think that would be too much," Salvatore said. "I don’t think he would like that at all."
Fair Lawn School District disenrolls about a half-dozen students each year and catches another 10 to 20 families trying to sneak in annually during the initial enrollment process, Watson said.