The 17-year-old former Flagler Palm Coast High School girl who last December was found guilty of threatening to kill her English teacher through racist-laced electronic messages with another student–behavior a judge compared to a terrorist act–was sentenced this afternoon to probation, community service, a curfew, writing a 10-page essay on diversity focusing on hate speech, an apology, and other requirements.
Her former teacher, Kimberly Lee, forgave her.
In many cases a judge will withhold adjudication on a first-time felony conviction involving no direct violence. But Circuit Judge Chris France had found the girl guilty of a second-degree felony at a one-day, non-jury trial in December, and had appeared even then predisposed not to go easy on the girl. He said so explicitly today after noting that he is married to an educator, saying that, if the statutory confines weren’t limiting him, he might have opted for some jail time, though he recognized that the girl was genuinely contrite.
She was adjudicated a delinquent. Though she was found guilty of a second-degree felony, juveniles are not adjudicated felons in Florida’s Juvenile justice system.
“I could see how much of what you did that you are sorry for it and ashamed of, that was more than evident and obvious,” France told the girl, who cried–and at one point made efforts to suppress her sobs–at several points during today’s sentencing, especially when her former teacher addressed the court, and turned from the podium directly to address her.
The girl had been in Lee’s English class, and had been assigned work she did not want to do, because she wanted to make-up work instead. She engaged in a chat with a student in another class. The two ended up describing how they would go to Lee’s house and kill her. They did not know where she lived, and they thought their exchanges were funny. But the two white students were brutally racist, seething with the language lynchings and degradation of blacks. Another teacher detected the exchanges, bringing them to the attention of the dean, then to that of Lee, who was shocked and scared and took a leave from school for weeks.
The other student eventually left the country. The girl was charged.
“I’ve never obviously experienced anything like this in my entire career,” Lee said, standing before France and answering questions by Assistant State Attorney Jason lewis. She was not seated in the witness box, as had been the case when she testified at trial. Her husband was in the gallery. The girl’s family was on the other side of the room. “I wa just taken aback by all of it, it totally interrupted my life, I became physically ill after this happened, it affected me emotionally, physically, I had to take a leave from my job, an unpaid leave from my job.”
The teacher developed physical ailments and psychological, anxiety-ridden challenges. She spoke of how she’d always extended kindness and fairness to the girl in class, and couldn;t understand why she would behave that way. “It’s just saddening and disappointing that this occurred,” Lee said. “I realize that there is nothing that I really could’ve done in this situation, there’s nothing I could’ve done to combat hate, and that’s exactly what this was.”
Lee said she’d waited for an apology, in vain. But she was unaware, and was made aware by Josh Davis, the girl’s attorney, that the girl had been under a court order to have no contact with her victim in any way, including through third parties. Including for apologies.
By then the girl was in tears, suppressing sobs.
“I do extend my forgiveness to her. I know she’s young,” Lee said. “I don’t want the situation to mar the rest of her life. I know and I believe she can do well. I hope and believe she can grow from this. I know she’s good.” As for herself, the teacher said she returned to work “because I realized I didn’t want to be guilty of using this incident and thinking all my students were that way, they deserved to have a whole teacher back.” It was difficult, and to this day she has anxiety when a new student walks through the door.
“You hurt me and you hurt my family and there are consequences for that, but I forgive you,” the teacher said, looking at the girl and referring to her by her first name, “and I do wish you well.” Turning back to the judge, she said: “That’s it.”
The girl did not speak. The case is on appeal, and Davis told the judge that he advised the girl not to address the court with the appeal in mind.
Davis made his case to the judge for some leniency–the withholding of adjudication at least, though he was also hoping that she would not be sentenced to probation, which is open-ended until her 19th birthday, though a judge may decide to revoke it before then if she abides by all the terms of the sentence. She is six months shy of her 18th birthday.
“This is just one of those cases that kind of makes you shake your head,” Davis told the judge, saying his client had never faced any kind of charge before. “Obviously not something that is tolerable in our society, but with all respect to everyone, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a child quite go through something like this. I have no clue what Ms Lee went through, just hearing from her today and at trial. But I’ve never seen a child go through these changes and these circumstances judge, and she has been kicked out of school, she was a big time pole vaulter and is not anymore, basically has been completely and totally isolated form peer groups of all kinds.” (As a sixth grader, she had been part of the new chapter of the National Junior Honor Society at Imagine School at Town Center.)
“I think she has served this punishment, and I think she will continue to serve this punishment, and I do not think that [she] needs any sort of incarceration,” Davis said. “I do believe there are things that she owes to herself, that she owes to Ms. Lee, that she owes to society in general. But I don’t know if there is a punishment that’s going to be worse than what she is already serving.” A punishment, he said, she will continue to serve the rest of her life, just as Lee would continue to “have this thing” for the rest of her life, he said.
Lewis, the assistant state attorney, was not opposed to the findings of the juvenile justice department’s “predisposition report,” which did not call for incarceration, but made a list of additional requirements he sought to be imposed, including serving half the 30 hours of community service at an NAACP branch either in Volusia or in St. Johns counties. Davis objected to that wrinkle, saying that “in a perfect world” the girl would serve all 30 of her hours at the NAACP, but given today’s circumstances, it would not be safe for her to do so. Lewis also asked for the “10-page essay on why diversity is important to our society and how hateful speech harms others, and I ask she takes some time to think about that and not just throw something together.”
She is also required to maintain employment, if she’s not in school (she graduated early last December, but did so online after being barred from FPC), and will be required to take sensitivity classes and counseling.
France began his remarks by addressing Lee, speaking of his own family’s involvement in education and of the “exemplary kindness” Lee showed, saying it’s the norm with educators “every day,” though they are not remunerated for it. “I’m glad you’re back,” France told Lee.
As for the girl, he said that while “a large percentage of me wants to go out of that framework and punish you for that, including incarceration,” France said the juvenile justice framework is geared toward rehabilitation. He then outlined the list of the sentence’s requirements, adding almost $1,000 in restitution, which Davis objected to, as it was the first he was hearing of it. The judge agreed to defer the actual amount until the two sides can agree to a figure. He also agreed not to require the girl to have any community service hours at the NAACP, though the disposition of those hours is still in question. He concluded by noting that “words mean something,” whatever the context.