On September 13, Felicity Huffman became the first parent to be sentenced in the nation’s largest college admissions scandal. Huffman, an actress who won an Emmy for her performance in ABC’s Desperate Housewives, paid a proctor $15,000 to correct her daughter’s answers on the SAT. Prosecutors had argued for a a month in prison; Huffman’s attorneys had asked for community service. Indira Talwani, a federal judge in Boston, came down in the middle, sentencing Huffman to 14 days in a federal prison, as well as a $30,000 fine, supervised release for a year, and 250 hours of community service.
The fact that Huffman will have to spend time behind bars should alarm the other parents whose cases are waiting to be considered, particularly actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, the designer Mossimo Giannulli, who paid $500,000 to gain their two daughters admission to the University of Southern California. The pair decided to plead not guilty and will face a trial in Boston. They are now at risk to spend much longer, years possibly, in prison if found guilty.
For a high profile Hollywood star, Huffman’s fall from grace has been humiliating and could impact her professional future. Yet 14 days in prison can hardly be considered cruel and unusual punishment. Consider the case of a principal and teachers in Atlanta who cheated on state-administered standardized tests for their students in order to meet targets under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Sentences for those found guilty ranged from six months to seven years. Or the case of Kelley Williams-Bolar, a black mother from Ohio who used her father’s address to get her two daughters into a better school district. She was initially sentenced to five years in prison. Governor John Kasich used his executive clemency to have the felonies reduced to a misdemeanor. She spent nine days in jail.
Thus far, no one has earned an “A” in this travesty. Despite their contrition and apologies, the other parents involved, while not as famous as Huffman and Loughlin, exhibit the same attitude of entitlement. They may regret getting caught paying off others to give their children an advantage in the college sweepstakes, but they most likely believe they did nothing wrong. Their children already have the advantage of attending schools whose graduates are coveted by the best colleges and universities. And they have the resources to pay for expensive test prep, as well as high profile extracurricular activities to burnish those resumes. Why not go further? Pay someone to make sure that admission is locked down.
The most damaging aspect of this scandal is what messages these parents have sent to their children. First, you deserve to begin your college career on third base without having hit the ball to right field. Second, cheating is not really a crime as long as you cheat with a purpose and get away with it. Third, and perhaps the most devastation message sent to these students: you aren’t smart enough, athletic enough, or talented enough to make it on your own. So mom and dad have to do it for you. Upon sentencing, Huffman told the court that when her daughter found out what was done on her behalf, she told her mother: “I don’t know who you are anymore, mom.” That, I expect, is the worst punishment any parent can suffer.
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the co-author with Margaret Sagarese, of many books for parents of adolescents, including The Roller-Coaster Years, Cliques, and Parenting 911.
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