This week's college scandal should bring to mind a 2011 case in which a mom of color served 9 days in jail for attempting to secure a better education and future for her daughters. 

By Maressa Brown
littlenySTOCK/Shutterstock

March 14, 2019

This week's headlines have been filled with the news of the FBI announcement that wealthy parents, including celebs Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, paid off coaches and testing companies to defraud their kids' way into elite colleges and universities. Federal court records unsealed Tuesday name 50 people who have been allegedly indicted as part of the nationwide scheme, according to a release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts. The scandal has the nation gasping and chattering about the lengths to which rich parents go to for their children's reputations. But it should also remind us of another issue: how parents of color have been punished for doing far less to bolster their kids' education. 

In 2011, Kelley Williams-Bolar served 9 days in jail in Ohio, and then was put on probation for two years and ordered to complete 80 hours of community service. Her crime: falsifying records so that her two daughters could attend a better school. The school district also accused Williams-Bolar of lying about her address and, when confronted, having her father file false court papers to get around the system. They also hired a private investigator, who shot video showing Williams-Bolar driving her children into the district, and asked her to pay $30,000 in back tuition. They aimed to make her the face of "stealing an education."

In her defense, Williams-Bolar explained that she did it to keep her children safe. "When my home got broken into, I felt it was my duty to do something else," she said at the time. 

Back then, the case called attention to the uneven playing field and the institutionalized racism that's woven into the fabric of the American educational system. 

Syracuse University Professor Boyce Watkins, who wrote about the case, told HLN, "I felt that the sentence was draconian and really, the case of Kelley Williams-Bolar, it’s such a microcosm of everything that is wrong with America when it comes to access to educational quality, when it comes to economic inequality and when it comes to inequality in the criminal justice system.”

This week, Twitter users have also pointed to the case of Tanya McDowell who was sentenced to 12 years in jail for sending her 6-year-old son to a school in Norwalk while she "lived" in Bridgeport, even though she was homeless. 

The current bribery bombshell clearly serves to remind us of ongoing, glaring injustice. Black working class parents like Williams-Bolar have been targeted by the criminal justice system for years for simply wanting opportunities for their children. It also throws the spotlight on the troubling fact that by scamming their kids' way into schools, rich white parents are taking spots that could have been given to more talented, deserving candidates who come from working class families. At the same time, students of color who attend prestigious schools are frequently met with cynicism about whether or not they've earned their spot on campus. 

Only time will tell if the parents indicted in this week's higher education scandal will be treated the same as Williams-Bolar and McDowell. If the criminal justice system is truly just, it only stands to reason that they would. Sadly, if history offers an indication of what we can expect, they won't.

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