Last week, a woman was sent to jail for ten days, placed on two years probation, and ordered to complete 80 hours of community service for a felony conviction. Her crime was fudging documents so that she could send her two daughters to the “wrong” school district, in the richer Akron, Ohio suburb where her father lived. She was led away in handcuffs.
On Saturday, a jury found Williams-Bolar guilty on two counts of tampering with records. She was also facing one count of grand theft, but the judge declared a mistrial on that charge after the jury couldn’t reach a verdict.
Williams-Bolar could have been sent to a state prison for up to 10 years, but Judge Cosgrove decided on a 10-day sentence in the Summit County Jail after weighing Williams-Bolar’s lack of criminal record with the seriousness of her crimes.
“I felt that some punishment or deterrent was needed for other individuals who might think to defraud the various school systems,” Cosgrove told NewsChannel5 after the sentencing.
Prosecutors said Williams-Bolar lived in Akron, but falsified enrollment papers in the Copley-Fairlawn School District so her two girls could attend schools for two years.
Prosecutors said the lies cost the district about $30,000. Copley-Fairlawn does not have open enrollment and out-of-district tuition is about $800 per month.
The school district spent about $6,000 to bring the case to trial. That included hiring a private investigator who followed Williams-Bolar and her children around while secretly videotaping their movements.
Superintendent Brain Poe said Copley-Fairlawn has lost hundreds of thousand of dollars because of parents illegally enrolling their children into the schools.
Poe said residency disputes are usually resolved after parents prove that they live in the district, pay tuition or remove their kids from the schools.
This marked the first time that one of their residency challenges went before a jury in criminal court. Poe said prosecuting this case was meant to send a message.
“If you’re paying taxes on a home here… those dollars need to stay home with our students,” Poe said.
One cannot honesty discuss this case without discussing the fact that Williams-Bolar is a black woman, raising black children in a city that has a large non-white population, living in a home secured through the local Housing Authority, while Copely is a very comfortably middle-class and overwhelmingly white town. Williams-Bolar is a mother who has been jailed for sending her kids to the “wrong” school district. But she’s also a black mother who has been jailed for sending her kids to a white school district.
Still, some will inevitably argue that this is not an issue of race or even class. It’s an issue of rules, of order. Someone broke the rules, and now they have to pay.
I would like to remind them firstly that who pays and how is always political. But just as importantly, it is not arbitrary where we place borders, how we enforce borders, and who we punish for crossing them. Borders, especially modern ones, are chosen. They are artificial. We like to tell ourselves that we create borders out of necessity, to more efficiently manage communities and resources. But we also create those borders specifically to keep other people out, to control resources in a way that prevents certain populations from accessing them. There is no accident in how borders are drawn and who is being kept out and removed from resources, not along lines of race, and not along lines of class — especially not in a country were so many borders were explicitly drawn with racist intent, during times of colonization, during times of slavery, during times of Jim Crow and less “official” forms of segregation, or even during modern times of “legals” and “illegals.” It’s a little too easy to write off as coincidence that the “wrong” school district was white in a country that has a very long and modern history, both official and unofficial, of keeping all non-white but especially black students out of white schools.
As Superintendent Poe explicitly states up above, this is about “our” tax dollars, and keeping them where they belong. And anytime we start talking about “us” and “them,” we need to look at what we mean by those words, because it rarely reflects well on our intentions and prejudices. William-Bolar crossed a border that was designed to keep her out. She “stole” resources that were apparently not her or her children’s to have. (Indeed, she was also charged with grand theft, which resulted in a hung jury.)
I think it’s about time we think about what we mean by “racism” if a black mother landing in jail because she sent her kids to a better school that would not have them doesn’t count, if calling it “stealing” when she gives them access to resources these white parents get to take for granted doesn’t qualify. If we don’t understand the racism of the much higher likelihood that a black mother will have to send her child to a sub-par school that will not teach them all they need to know than a white mother, if we don’t understand the racism of punishing her for fighting back against that inherently unequal, oppressive, white supremacist system, we don’t understand the first thing about racism at all.
In fact, (though I object to his metaphorical use of the word “cripple”) I can’t say it any better than Dr. Boyce Watkins did in his blog post:
This case is a textbook example of everything that remains racially wrong with America’s educational, economic and criminal justice systems. Let’s start from the top: Had Ms. Williams-Bolar been white, she likely would never have been prosecuted for this crime in the first place (I’d love for them to show me a white woman in that area who’s gone to jail for the same crime). She also is statistically not as likely to be living in a housing project with the need to break an unjust law in order to create a better life for her daughters. Being black is also correlated with the fact that Williams-Bolar likely didn’t have the resources to hire the kinds of attorneys who could get her out of this mess (since the average black family’s wealth is roughly 1/10 that of white families). Finally, economic inequality is impactful here because that’s the reason that Williams-Bolar’s school district likely has fewer resources than the school she chose for her kids. In other words, black people have been historically robbed of our economic opportunities, leading to a two-tiered reality that we are then imprisoned for attempting to alleviate. That, my friends, is American Racism 101.
This case is a textbook example of how racial-inequality created during slavery and Jim Crow continues to cripple our nation to this day. There is no logical reason on earth why this mother of two should be dehumanized by going to jail and be left permanently marginalized from future economic and educational opportunities. Even if you believe in the laws that keep poor kids trapped in underperforming schools, the idea that this woman should be sent to jail for demanding educational access is simply ridiculous.
In the end, William-Bolar’s real punishment is not the indignity and injustice of her 10 days in jail. It is the felony record that will follow her for many years to come. It will inevitably keep her from obtaining employment, from creating an economically better life for her daughters. Specifically, it will keep her from getting the teaching license she has been studying for at college — money, time, and effort all sent down the drain. A dream and opportunity taken from her because she had dreams for her daughters, wanted opportunities for them, and did the best she could in an oppressive system to see to it that they got them.
Maybe we should talk about that when we want to talk about theft, what was stolen, and from whom.