Few things in life are as simple as black and white. And it doesn’t take a lawyer to understand the theory of mitigating circumstances, which can diminish the severity of a sentence handed down to a defendant. Kelley Williams-Bolar, a black mother living in the projects of Akron, Ohio, and her father Edward L. Williams were convicted last week of felony. She was convicted of fraud, for a very common practice often utilized in many lower income communities: she simply used a relative’s address to send her children to a better (read: white) school district. Williams-Bolar was sentenced to ten days in jail, and quickly taken into custody. After her release, she will serve two years probation, and is required to serve eighty hours of community service. The judge’s apparent rationale; you break the law, you suffer the consequences, end of discussion.
Never mind the fact that Williams-Bolar is a first time offender. She has no criminal record, was a special education teacher’s aide, and a few hours shy of receiving her teaching degree from Akron University. The judge didn’t seem to care. You see, the judge wanted to make an example out of Williams-Bolar so that others who “might defraud the school system, perhaps might think twice.” The judge went on to further admonish Willams-Bolar when she declared that because of ” your felonious record, you will not be allowed to get your teaching degree under Ohio law as it stands today.”
WATCH KELLEY WILLIAMS-BOLAR’S STORY HERE:
Just last night in his State of the Union Address, President Obama praised the importance of teachers and lauded them for making a difference. It is a well known fact that we have a shortage of teachers. So in one fell swoop, this judge may have robbed this otherwise law abiding citizen of her dreams and robbed us of another sorely needed teacher.
President Obama went on to offer a jaw dropping and surely little known statistic: that 25 percent of American students fail to graduate high school. As she lives in the Projects, the odds of her children graduating are diminished even further. Williams-Bolar’s father lives in a better school district, a self described suburban utopia of “modern homes and apartments, extensive shopping areas…[with] a wide variety of cultural and recreational activities.” So who can really blame her for trying to give her kids a better education, as a student herself, clearly she values the importance of education.
In this case, however, Williams-Bolar’s options were limited. Copley-Fairlawn, the School District where her father resides, does not have open enrollment. Nor does the District participate in “Voluntary Transfer Programs” (formerly known as “desegregation”) which allows a select number of inner city youths to be voluntarily bussed to “majority”/white schools. So what is a mother in her situation to do? If her children were otherwise properly admitted as an out of district resident, she could have paid roughly $800 monthly tuition, which, as a recipient of public assistance she surely couldn’t afford. Her other alternative, once discovered, was to pay the district restitution and begin paying tuition or remove her children from school. Apparently, other families who were caught in the same act did one or the other, while Williams-Bolar apparently did neither.
At the risk of sounding callous, she should have known that she was headed for trouble by bucking that system. After all, this district, which was awarded with an Excellence With Distinction Award by the State of Ohio, is the same school district that reportedly offered a whopping $100 to anyone who turned in illegally enrolled students. That makes it painfully apparent that they take residency requirements seriously, and aren’t going to take this defiance lying down. As a result, they sued Williams-Bolar and her father.
As much as the human side of me understands and empathizes with her plight, the lawyer side, unfortunately understands how this happened. According to Section 2913 of the Revised Ohio Code, one is guilty of fraud if you “knowingly obtain, by deception, some benefit for oneself or another, or knowingly cause, by deception, some detriment to another. It seems that the jury, although arguably not one composed of her peers, was properly instructed on fraud pursuant to Ohio’s definition. Did Williams-Bolar knowingly (yes), by deception (yes,) obtain some benefit (yes). After seven hours of deliberation, the jury found Williams-Bolar guilty.
Ohio judges have a wide discretion when imposing sentences, so perhaps one can take solace in the fact that Williams-Bolar received only ten days for her felony conviction, as opposed to the minimum sentence of six months. And in spite of Judge Cosgrove declaring to make an example out of her, are we to laud the fact that the Judge wrote a letter to the State Board of Superintendents asking them not to suspend any teaching licenses she may have in the future? In the letter, Judge Cosgrove went so far as to recognize Ms. Williams-Bolar as a “single mother with many good qualities” There you have your circumstances which serve to reduce the penalty, otherwise known as mitigating circumstances. Or, in light of her vow to make an example out of Williams-Bolar, was that an attempt to soothe a guilty conscience? As nothing is really black and white, perhaps this really is a combination of both.