C.Crackdown on Conscientious Objectors: Prosecuting Peaceful Parent Protestors

Many parents are understandably reluctant to accept a state of affairs in which poor and minority children receive less access to quality education than their more affluent White counterparts. Parents who have the financial ability may move from one area to another to access better schools and improve opportunities for the success of their children. Those without means, however, are left in a difficult situation--accept the government's decision to reduce the life chances of their children or conscientiously object to such violence being visited upon their children's futures. Some families are beginning to take the latter route, refusing to become passive parties in the nation's continuing war on poor and minority youth.

Our country has long respected those who take a stand against aggression based upon moral concerns of conscience. Yet some parents pursuing such options in the education context are being treated as unlawful resisters and met with criminal prosecution and possible prison sentences. Perhaps the most well-known example is the case of Kelley Williams-Bolar, a Black mother of two daughters living in Akron, Ohio. Williams-Bolar, a college student and teachers' aide, was charged, tried, and convicted of two counts of felony tampering with official records for simply enrolling her daughters in a suburban school to which they allegedly were not legally zoned.

Williams-Bolar lived in subsidized housing in the high-crime area of West Akron, where her apartment had previously been burglarized, and she decided to register her children for school using the address of her father, who lived in the suburb of Copley-Fairlawn. She asserted that the children lived with both her and her father and tried to have her father become a legal guardian for purposes of residency, but the school district pursued criminal action against her. It claimed she had defrauded the district of approximately $30,000 in educational costs by unfairly accessing its resources for her children. Williams-Bolar's conviction led to a ten-day jail sentence followed by two years of community control probation and a felony record that could have precluded her from seeking teacher certification. Ultimately, Ohio Governor John Kasich intervened to grant executive clemency relief, reducing the charges to misdemeanors so that she could continue to work in the school system.

More recently, the State of Connecticut charged Tanya McDowell, a homeless Black woman, with felony theft for using the address of her babysitter to enroll her five-year-old son in the Norwalk school district. In McDowell's case, the school district has claimed that she stole more than $16,000 worth of education for her kindergartener. Although McDowell was living in her van and sleeping at a homeless shelter, school officials assert that she should have registered her child using her last permanent address in the poorer performing district of Bridgeport. If convicted, McDowell faces up to twenty years in prison.

Commentators have been quick to note that these two prosecutions appear to be selective strikes. In both districts, dozens of other families have engaged in similar behavior without being met with criminal proceedings. The same holds true in other cities across the country. Even so, these mothers of color and their children have become examples. For many, such practices reflect a new race-based strategy against Parenting While Black. For others, it has generated the kind of distrust and fear one might expect in a police state. One mother from Norwalk, who has organized the Connecticut Parents Union as a response to McDowell's case, said the following: I'm disappointed and I'm scared . . . I'm afraid of a system that would rather arrest me for being a good parent than help me raise my child to be a productive citizen. The disparate treatment among poor and minority students, as well as the punishments for those who try to remedy the problem themselves, illustrate just some of the large-scale problems that continue to exist in our schools.