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‘It Destroyed Me’: Lasting Trauma Years After Districts’ Address Crackdowns

<Ƶ class="subtitle">Over a decade since their viral prosecutions for using false addresses to send their children to better quality schools, families try to heal.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice/The 74

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Soon after she had gone to jail for trying to get her children a better education, Kelley Williams-Bolar’s teenage daughter Jada confronted her mother with an accusation that will stick with her forever.

“You’re not there for me,” said Jada, now 26. Like the rest of her family, Jada still struggles with her mother’s 2011 felony conviction for sending Jada and her sister Kayla to a suburban school outside Akron, Ohio, using their grandfather’s address.

By the time Jada stood firmly in front of her, Williams-Bolger had spent nine days in jail, overwhelmed by how a felony could upend their lives, jeopardizing future housing and employment opportunities. She started to defend herself, then went silent. She knew Jada was right.

“But you know, it was my mind that wasn’t there. It wasn’t there for years,” conceded Williams-Bolar, a longtime educator and child care provider. “…Honestly, it destroyed me. It was a lot to deal with. I wasn’t the same mom for my daughters.”

Years after their prosecutions and forced removal from districts, families across the country like Williams-Bolar’s are still paying the price, economically and emotionally, after being prosecuted for acting in the best interest of their children. 

In Pennsylvania, one family ultimately owed over $10,000 for tuition and amassed legal fees into the six figures for keeping their child enrolled in a suburban school after moving out of the district three months before the end of the school year. In Connecticut, Tanya McDowell, whose family was experiencing homelessness, used her babysitter’s address to enroll her five year old in a Norwalk school. She was convicted on larceny and unrelated drug charges, serving .

Outside of the legal ramifications, many families still struggle with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress, their family relationships and work suffering as a result. Their children have felt at times like they had lost their parents and interest in school. 

Now seven decades after the Supreme Court outlawed sorting children by race and promised quality education for all in the landmark Brown v. Board decision, experts are beating the drum that continuing to exclude children from quality schools based on their home addresses perpetuates segregation. Advocates have also called for an end to the practice of prosecuting parents who, knowingly or unknowingly, disregard zone lines when enrolling their children.

Williams-Bolar’s daughters were zoned for Akron Public Schools, 15 minutes but seemingly a world apart from Copley-Fairlawn, the predominantly white suburban district where her father lived and often cared for her daughters. Visiting Copley’s schools, she saw acres of land, science fairs, a sprawling greenhouse, and a full computer room. Akron’s schools at the time had rapidly decaying infrastructure. Styrofoam cups filled with dirt were the plants in her daughters’ science classes. 

Night and day, she said. She just couldn’t have anticipated what the cost of enrolling her kids in Copley would be. 

Months later, her trial began. Intense scrutiny on the case made their family recipients of unwanted, international attention. A school district contractor showed up to their front door, looking inside their refrigerator, closets, bathrooms, counting each toothbrush. Teachers and students at her daughters’ school made snide remarks about their mother’s jail time. They’d catch neighbors’ side eyed, judgemental gazes. 

White men started driving slowly by their home at any time of day, never speaking, only staring. This would happen about a dozen separate times. 

Williams-Bolar sometimes stayed in her room crying for days, not knowing how much time was passing. Her depression lingered well after . 

Three years on probation also meant the family couldn’t travel to see relatives in the south. She was also barred from visiting her father in prison for months. Though his involvement with her school enrollment case was dropped, soon after the state convicted him on fraud charges related to government benefits. Williams-Bolar maintains the case against her father would not have been pursued without the unprecedented spotlight on her family. 

“Once you get in the lion’s den, they’re not just gonna let you go,” she said. 

He served 11 months in prison, and died in its hospital one month before release. 

“He loved going out barbecuing in the front yard. He loved all his grand babies coming over, always listening to music,” said Kayla, now 30. “I mean, the greatest grandpa a girl could ever ask for. Damn near like a father to me, and I’d do anything to have him back. But here we are.”

Kelley Williams-Bolar with her two daughters, Jada and Kayla

Investigations in and recently confirmed districts still regularly confront families suspected of living outside of their boundaries. Today, their methods are usually less public, with districts hiring private investigators or threatening prosecution to get families to disenroll their children. The thousands known to be kicked out of their schools for address sharing are disproportionately Black and brown. 

In at least 24 states, parents can face criminal prosecution, fines and jail sentences for address sharing. Only one, Connecticut, has decriminalized the common practice. 

To reduce the scale of the issue and promote integration, districts could adopt county boundaries, encompassing more diversity and better reflecting work-life patterns, rather than neighborhood lines that mirror racist housing segregation. But they often “lack the political will,” to do so; quality schools remain scarce by design, said civil rights lawyer Erika Wilson. 

And though Williams-Bolar knows a friend was similarly confronted by the district who believed her family lived outside the boundary, they never prosecuted her or asked her to remove her two children. The friend was related to a prominent leader in the NAACP. Williams-Bolar later met a former Copley student who alleged he lived in Akron, too, and that the school knew at the time, but let him stay because he was an athlete. 

“I think it’s common at these, these selective schools. The problem is it’s very, very selectively enforced,” said Tim DeRoche, author, researcher and founder of Available to All, a watchdog organization. 

‘I remember my wife losing her hair’

Around the same time Williams-Bolar was navigating her trial, just one state over, six year old Fiorella Garcia pleaded with the governor of Pennsylvania to drop charges against her parents. Crying, she said she didn’t want to go into foster care. 

In 2012, her parents Hamlet and Olesia Garcia faced up to seven years in prison, felony convictions, and losing custody of their daughter. The suburban Lower Moreland Township School District alleged Fiorella lived outside of its zone, in Philadelphia. Fiorella and Olesia lived temporarily with her grandparents in Lower Moreland, but failed to notify the district that they had moved out. 

In records reviewed by The 74, the Garcias repeatedly offered to pay the district the cost for Fiorella to finish the school year in Lower Moreland so as to not interrupt her schooling. Their requests were denied. 

Their mug shots headlined local news the night they were arrested, alongside headlines that alluded to tax fraud. Olesia, who owned a private insurance company, risked losing her license and business. Their address made its way into coverage, and soon after, their car was vandalized.  

“This has never got off my head … I remember my wife losing her hair,” Hamlet Garcia said, trying to hold back tears. Losing so much sleep, he tried medication and experienced chest pains, which he attributes to the stress. 

Their tide only changed after leaving their public defender, who wanted them to settle for a guilty plea. The Garcias incurred close to $100,000 in debt to instead hire a high profile law team from Florida, money they say would have gone toward their daughters’ college education or family vacations. 

The Garcia family

Ultimately, all . The family paid $10,752 “tuition” to the district and a $100 fine. 

In the decade that has followed, Garcia has devoted most of his time to learning education law, organizing for school choice and Republican political campaigns, feeling betrayed by the Democrats he felt were responsible. Fiorella, now 17, is about to graduate from high school. 

Telling her story and becoming a parent advocate has been Williams-Bolar’s “medicine.” She feels she’s a part of changing education policy to expand access to quality schools and “leave a legacy for my dad because he didn’t deserve none of that. He didn’t deserve to die in jail.” 

Today she works at one of Akron Public Schools’ high schools as a paraprofessional: the superintendent refused to fire her after the ordeal.

“Honestly,” said Kayla, who’s also considering going back to school to be an educator, “I’m still trying to heal.” 

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