On Thursday, September 12th, 2019 I saw news circulating on social media about an Ohio cheerleader who was acquitted after being tried for killing her newborn child and burying the baby in her family’s backyard. Images of a petite blond-haired girl were splashed all over my timeline. A day later actress Felicity Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in prison for falsifying her daughter's SAT scores to get her admitted to an elite university. My initial reaction when I heard the news, “the justice system is hard at work this week.”
In March of 2019, Felicity Huffman and actress Lori Loughlin were involved in the college admissions scandal deemed, “Operation Varsity Blues,” whereas many as 50 parents paid coaches, admissions officers, and test proctors to falsify their children’s admissions materials for elite colleges and universities. Some of them went as far as photo-shopping the head of their child on student-athletes.
News of the scandal sparked a discussion of inequity in the education system and college admissions. These privileged families were “leveling the playing field” for their students whose advantages were already stacked in their favor. In a letter that Huffman submitted to the judge the day before her sentencing hearing, Huffman laid out her intentions behind her actions stating that she was a desperate mother who would do anything to give her child a “fair shot.” In the letter, Huffman described how the mothers at her daughter's public performing arts school urged her to find a private college counselor and to not leave her daughter’s future in the hands of, “overworked and understaffed administrators.”
The Varsity Blues scandal revealed the irony in Huffman’s plea for leniency. At least she had the means to provide private college counseling for her daughter when there are multitudes of students who have to contend with worse odds when applying for college, let alone being retained at those schools. But the sentencing of Huffman revealed the ripple effect of how far the injustice goes.
There’s a costly interest to being poor; consider being poor and black/brown and that interest is compounded. In 2011, Tanya McDowell, a homeless Bridgeport, CT mom was arrested and charged for enrolling her then 5-year-old son in a school in a more well-off city, Norwalk, CT. McDowell was sentenced to 5 years in jail for drug and larceny charges tied to the boundary-hopping school case.
"Who would have thought that wanting a good education for my son would put me in this predicament?" McDowell said at her sentencing for the drug charges.
In 2001, Kelley Williams-Bolar was a single, black mother who used her father’s address to send her daughters’ to a better school. Williams-Bolar was convicted and given two concurrent 5-year sentences that were suspended down to 10-days.
Many families like Williams-Bolar and McDowell resort to falsifying their addresses to send their students to schools in better districts because of legal segregation that occurs through zoning laws that persist even when redlining has been illegal for 50 years. Rich families populate areas that drive up the cost of living. Those families pay taxes to public schools that receive far better resources and because those families pay taxes to those schools, they feel that falsifying an address is a form of theft. Most boundary-hopping cases are reported by parents of schools and not school officials. Racist housing policies beget racist school districts which begets a racist justice system that tries these families for doing exactly what Huffman did, creating better opportunities for their child.
On the afternoon of Huffman’s sentencing, I was watching a news show that had a guest legal analyst who predicted that there was a slim chance that Huffman would receive jail time for a “victimless crime.” I could think of all the victims in Huffman’s case. The students who rightfully deserved to attend these universities whose spot was taken by mediocre, undeserving, white students. I think of Tanya McDowell and Kelley Williams-Bolar who fought an unjust system on behalf of their kids only to fall victim to that system. I think of everyone who couldn’t beat the odds, those are the real victims of this case.