Free To Learn Project

Our Story

In March of 2012, our daughter, Hannah, a freshman at James River High school in Chesterfield County Virginia, was taken from school to the county juvenile center and kept overnight. She was charged with 2 counts of aggravated assault, 1 count of disorderly conduct, and 1 count assault on a police officer, which is a class 6 felony in the state of Virginia. She was sentenced to 1 month house arrest where she wore an ankle monitor and got 26 weeks community service.

Hannah (355K)

The above charges are the technical terms used to describe Hannah's actions that day, which was actually throwing the first punch in a fight, cursing, and pulling away from the school police officer when he tried to break it up. Whether the charges and punishment fit the actions or not is for anyone reading this to decide, however, this is how every school system and police officer react to such an incident regardless of how the situation escalated to that point.

Is Hannah a bad seed? Is she a juvenile delinquent that should be confined behind bars and tagged the rest of her life as a threat to society? Is she a troubled child void of proper parenting, social skills and in need of physiological health counseling or medication? No, she is none of the above but this is how Chesterfield county sees her, treated her and punished her. In fact, Hannah is the complete opposite in every above situation, and here's how.

Hannah is an honor student with a B average in school. She plays softball and has healthy friendships with many girls her age. She does not do drugs, she still possesses her virginity, and is liked by her friend's parents, her coaches and teachers. Her father and mother is in the household, both working, she has 3 brothers and two older sisters who are all doing well. Outside of everyday childhood drama, Hannah is a normal teenage girl from a normal suburban family.

So what lead Hannah to start a fight in school?

In the beginning of the school year, Hannah was confronted by a girl whose boyfriend liked Hannah. They got into an argument on the school bus and the girl attacked Hannah. Hannah fought back and both girls were suspended from school. The girl for 10 days, Hannah for 3 days. Later in the school year, the girl approached Hannah again but this time, the girl had another girl attack Hannah. This time Hannah did not fight back because we (her parents) told her not to but to go to the principle or teacher.

The girl was again suspended and so was Hannah, apparently for yelling back at both girls. Now as parents, we started questioning this procedure. Why was our daughter suspended for yelling back and not physically fighting? Well, it has become school policy not to yell back. Ok. Another incident came up and the girl had other girls approach Hannah and tease her from a distance. We told her to tell the principle each time someone approached her, so she did. By this time, there were no less than 5 complaints at the principal's office about this other girl harassing Hannah.

Then the final incident happened. This time the girl had a boy approach Hannah and harass her with physical and sexual threats to her person. Now Hannah's mother (as a woman) was concerned for Hannah's safety. She told Hannah if the boy touched her one time to kick him where it hurts. Apparently, the principal's office did not do everything they could to stop this harassment and bullying of Hannah although they had 5 months to do so, so the parents decided to allow Hannah to take it into her own hands.

The boy approached Hannah one final time and this is when Hannah kicked him and started hitting him. The police officer on duty came to break up the fight and grabbed Hannah by the sweater. She pulled away and continued hitting the boy. Finally they got Hannah to calm down and arrested her. The police officer wrote in his report that Hannah hit him so hard she dislocated his shoulder, thus she was charged. Hannah is 5'1 and the officer is 6'2, and Hannah never hit him, she snatched away. Even the judge laughed at the officer's accusation.

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The assistant principle of James River High (we will not mention any names) that had all of Hannah's complaints in writing did nothing to stop the arrest, but in fact, encouraged it and touted about it when she called the parents and left them messages that Hannah was going to jail. Before the police car drove off, the assistant principle asked Hannah where her brother was because he was next. Hannah and her brother were pulled from Chesterfield county schools the next day.

Did she receive a fair trial in court? No. Via her court appointed lawyer, Hannah was forced to plead guilty to assaulting the officer. The other charges of assault on the boy was dropped. In reality, Hannah was guilty of assault on the boy but not guilty on assault of the officer, but was forced to plead guilty anyway. Through her eyes, she was innocent and pleaded with the judge that she meant no harm to the officer. But this is the system in which we live.

Vigilante justice is justice when organized justice fails. The school system failed Hannah and so did the police department and the courts. Her self esteem dropped and she lost focus for a few months but her parents helped her through it. She now attends high school in Colorado. She is in honors classes, in her right grade, (because Chesterfield was going to keep her back a grade), and she is playing softball. Her brother recently graduated from an online High School.

Indifference is a huge problem with the Zero Tolerance policy schools enforce. It does not take into consideration the who, what, when, or why of any situation but handles the problem from the surface, not from the core. The Free To Learn Project believes in handling a problem from the core, the root cause, because not all children suspended from school have done anything deserving of suspension and especially arrest. But every child deserves attention and respect, not indifference, handcuffs, and incarceration.

By the way, Hannah is Black and the assistant principle, officer and the court appointed lawyer are all white.