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The Plot to Demonize Black Youth -- And Their Mothers, Too

Are schools playing a key role in the criminalization of black children -- and their parents?

Photo Credit: Lucian Coman |


A disturbing trend is increasingly making national news in the United States: poor black mothers jailed for sending their children to schools outside their zoned school districts. The arrests of these mothers may seem novel, but given what we know about the criminal justice system’s propensity for arresting black adults and children at disproportionate rates, we shouldn’t be surprised. Not unlike truancy sweeps that target large numbers of black and poor children with legal sanctions for missing school, arrest for so-called “fraudulent enrollment” has become yet another avenue through which to target people of color.

As it turns out, schools are playing a key role in the demonization of black children – and their parents. As data recently published by the federal Office for Civil Rights – and collected by the Department of Education – has shown, black students often face far stricter school disciplinary penalties than their white peers do. In a recent report, NPR highlighted the fact that black children are three and a half times more likely to be suspended from school than white children. The new data paints a troubling picture of the prevalence of institutionalized racism in schools, and echos the results of a study released by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2010, which found similar racial discrepancies and noted that suspension rates for middle-school students of color, in particular, had skyrocketed.

This new data documenting racial disparities in schools comes hand-in-hand with fresh information about arrests targeting black people in nonviolent, school-related crimes (like fraudulent enrollment). We have seen a handful of stories about the latter phenomenon in national news media: black women, many of them poor, being arrested and charged with felonies for enrolling their children outside of their designated school district; they are alleged to owe thousands of dollars in back pay for school tuition deemed not legally theirs. In Connecticut, Tonya McDowell, a homeless black woman, recently pled guilty to fraudulent school enrollment. She was simultaneously convicted of drug possession and sales, and received a 12-year prison sentence.

McDowell’s case was reminiscent of the plight of Kelly Williams Bolar, a black mother in Ohio who spent 10 days in jail for allegations of fraudulent school enrollment that were later dropped. Though her penalty was far less severe than McDowell’s, the message being sent was clear: beware to poor mothers who borrow a relative’s or a friend’s address to send their children to a better public school. School districts and judges alike are clearly using these cases as examples to deter other parents from doing the same thing – and, in the process, keeping poor youth of color sequestered in the under-funded, often failing schools in the communities where they live.

You don’t have to look far beyond the schoolhouse doors to see that this kind of racial scapegoating is part of a larger societal trend – for just as black children are disproportionately disciplined with suspension and expulsion in schools, black adults – men in particular – are disproportionately funneled into our criminal justice system for violent and nonviolent crimes alike. A 2011 survey by the Children’s Defense Fund found that black men and women were being incarcerated at 6.5 times the rate of white adults. Black children are two times more likely to be arrested than white children despite comprising just 17 percent of American youth. Plus, the study found that more and more black girls were also facing arrest, pointing to a closing of the gender gap in black arrests.

Looking at the newspaper images of the families charged with fraudulent enrollment, it would be easy to assume that black people are the only ones trying to enroll their children out of district. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that small numbers of parents – some of them white -- have quietly been doing exactly the same thing for a long time, and without any such serious repercussions.

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