Devastated by the Long-Term Effects of Crackdowns on Districts’ Addresses

Right after she was incarcerated for attempting to secure a better education for her children, Kelley Williams-Bolar’s daughter Jada, 26, confronted her with a lasting accusation.

Jada resented her mother’s 2011 felony conviction for enrolling her and her sister Kayla in a suburban school near Akron, Ohio, using their grandfather’s address.

Having spent nine days in jail, Williams-Bolar faced the harsh reality of how a felony could disrupt their lives, impacting future housing and job prospects. She initially tried to defend her actions but eventually fell silent, acknowledging Jada’s point.

“It was my mindset that failed me. I wasn’t fully present for years,” admitted Williams-Bolar, an experienced educator and child care provider. “Honestly, it crushed me. Dealing with it was overwhelming, and I couldn’t be the same mother to my daughters.”

Years after the incidents and the displacement of families from their districts, individuals like Williams-Bolar continue to endure economic and emotional repercussions from being prosecuted for prioritizing their children’s well-being.

In a Pennsylvania case, a family was saddled with over $10,000 in tuition fees and legal expenses exceeding six figures for enrolling their child in a superior neighboring district improperly. Tanya McDowell of Connecticut, experiencing homelessness, used her babysitter’s address to enroll her child in school, leading to larceny and drug-related charges that resulted in a three-year prison term.

Besides the legal consequences, many families battle depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress, with strained family bonds and work performance as outcomes. Their children sometimes feel disconnected from their parents and education.

Now, seven decades after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision, which banned racial segregation and pledged equal education, experts emphasize that barring children from quality schools based on their addresses perpetuates segregation. Advocates call for halting the prosecution of parents who, whether knowingly or unknowingly, violate enrollment boundaries for their children.

Williams-Bolar’s daughters were initially enrolled in Akron Public Schools but resided minutes away from the predominantly white Copley-Fairlawn suburban district, where her father lived and often cared for her daughters. Copley’s well-equipped schools contrasted starkly with Akron’s deteriorating educational infrastructure, characterized by degraded facilities and limited resources.

She vividly noted the stark difference between the schools, realizing the consequences of enrolling her children in Copley later on.

During her trial, intense scrutiny drew unwanted international focus on their family. School authorities conducted intrusive inspections at their home, inspecting their belongings and living spaces down to toothbrushes. The ordeal extended to negative comments from teachers and students at her daughters’ school and judgmental stares from neighbors.

Additionally, unidentified individuals would frequently pass by their house, casting suspicious glances without uttering a word—an encounter that repeated several times.

The aftermath of her ordeal led to days spent weeping in her room, losing track of time. Even after a clemency granted by then-Governor John Kasich, her depression lingered, compounded by a restriction on travel and family visits due to probation terms.

Notably, while her father’s involvement with the school enrollment issue was dropped, he faced unrelated fraud charges after Williams-Bolar’s case received unprecedented attention. He ultimately served prison time, passing away a month before his scheduled release.

“He was an exceptional grandpa, a father figure to me,” remarked Kayla, 30. “I miss him dearly, wishing he were still here.”

Kelley Williams-Bolar with her daughters, Jada and Kayla

Recent investigations in St. Louis and Philadelphia reaffirm that districts frequently challenge families suspected of residing outside their boundaries. While current practices involve fewer public displays but employ private investigators and threats of legal action to coerce families to withdraw their children from schools, the impact disproportionately affects Black and brown families.

In over 24 states, parents risk criminal charges, fines, and imprisonment for address discrepancies, with only Connecticut having decriminalized such violations.

To address the issue and advance integration, advocates propose adopting county boundaries rather than divisive neighborhood lines that mirror historic housing segregation patterns. However, reluctance to enact such changes persists, limiting the access to quality education deliberately, as noted by civil rights attorney Erika Wilson.

Reflecting on her experience, Williams-Bolar discovered disparities in how her district addressed address issues compared to a friend with ties to an NAACP leader, who faced no prosecution or expulsion of their children despite similar circumstances.

Additionally, she encountered a former Copley student who acknowledged living in Akron but staying in Copley due to athletic commitments, highlighting selective enforcement practices at play.

‘Watching my wife’s anguish’

During a parallel incident in Pennsylvania, Hector and Olesia Garcia faced legal prosecution by the Lower Moreland Township School District for purportedly residing outside its jurisdiction. Their daughter Fiorella, six at the time, feared separation from her parents and foster care.

The Garcias missed informing the school district of their move out of Lower Moreland, where Fiorella temporarily resided with her grandparents, leading to felony charges that could have resulted in prison time and custody loss.

Despite repeatedly offering to pay for Fiorella’s continuation in Lower Moreland schools to avoid disrupting her education, their pleas were rejected by the district.

Their subsequent arrest made headlines with mentions of tax fraud, leading to additional scrutiny, vandalism of their property, and emotional distress. The toll on Hector, exacerbated by Olesia’s suffering, manifested in hair loss, insomnia, and chest pains induced by stress.

Dissatisfied with their public defender’s approach, the Garcias opted for a high-profile legal team, incurring significant debt to fight the charges. The resolution included financial penalties and debt settlement, diverting funds intended for their daughter’s education and family vacations.

The Garcia family

In a turn of events, charges against Olesia were dropped, while Hector accepted a lesser charge and paid fines to resolve the case. For Hector, the experience spurred an advocacy journey focusing on education rights and political engagement.

Amidst healing and sharing her story, Williams-Bolar finds strength in advocating for policy changes to enhance school access and honor her father’s memory. She continues to work at Akron Public Schools, driven to make a positive impact despite the challenges she faced.

“I’m still on the path to healing,” added Kayla, considering pursuing an education career.

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