The girl has already spent more than a year at the Ron Jackson Correctional Complex in Brownwood, about 300 miles from her Paris, Texas, home. The facility is part of an embattled juvenile system that is the subject of state and federal investigations into allegations that Texas Youth Commission staff physically and sexually abused inmates.
Her family and civil rights activists say they want her home now. They are condemning the sentence as unusually harsh and shows a justice system that punishes youthful offenders differently based on race.
“My daughter has been (at Brownwood) a year now,” Creola Cotton, standing in front of the Lamar County Courthouse, told the Herald Democrat, “It’s time for her to come home.”
From her blog:
Location: Paris : Texas : United States
I am a 14-year-old black freshman who shoved a hall monitor at Paris High School in a dispute over entering the building before the school day had officially begun and was sentenced to 7 years in prison. I have no prior arrest record, and the hall monitor--a 58-year-old teacher's aide--was not seriously injured. I was tried in March 2006 in the town's juvenile court, convicted of "assault on a public servant" and sentenced by Lamar County Judge Chuck Superville to prison for up to 7 years, until I turn 21. Just three months earlier, Superville sentenced a 14-year-old white girl, convicted of arson for burning down her family's house, to probation.
The first article below is from BET. The second is from the Chicago Tribune.
Texas Teen Gets 7 Years for Pushing Teacher
By Tracy Stokes, BET.com News Staff & Wire Services
In Paris, Texas, last year, a 14-year-old White girl burns down her family's home. Her punishment? Probation. In the same town three months later, a 15-year-old Black girl, Shaquanda Cotton, is sentenced to seven years in prison for pushing a hall monitor at her high school.
Shaquanda had no prior arrests, and the monitor, a 58-year-old teacher’s aide, was not hurt, according to Black leaders in the northeast Texas town of about 26,000 residents. But in March 2006, the same judge, Lamar County Judge Chuck Superville, who let the White teenage girl go on probation, convicted Shaquanda of "assault on a public servant" and sent her to prison at least until she turns 21.
Officials at the Texas Youth Commission declined to discuss the case with BET.com, citing Texas law.
"State law forbids us from acknowledging whether we have any youths are in our system, despite the 50 million issues of print that's been run," said Jim Hurley, a spokesman for the Texas Youth Commission. "We’d have to break the law to talk about it."
Civil Rights Uproar
While the U.S. Department of Education is investigating the incident, the case has civil rights groups in an uproar.
"I don't understand the judge's rationale for his decision," Dr. Howard Anderson, president of the San Antonio Branch of the NAACP, told BET.com.
In highlighting what he called an egregious miscarriage of justice in a town with a long history of civil rights abuses, Anderson pointed to the case of the 14-year-old convicted arson (whose name was not released because of her age), who was slapped with probation, and the case of a 19-year-old White man in Paris, convicted of killing a 54-year-old Black woman and her 3-year-old grandson with his truck. The latter, he said, was also sentenced to probation and told to send the family a Christmas card every year.
"Then you have Shaquanda's case,” Anderson said. “She pushed a hall monitor, and she gets seven years confinement? If I look at all three of these sentences, and I'm not a lawyer, I have to wonder what the judicial system is doing. In this particular case, what is this judge doing?"
Gary Bledsoe, an Austin attorney who heads the state NAACP branch, told BET.com that Shaquanda was merely trying to defend herself.
"All she (Shaquanda) did was grab the aide to prevent a strike,” Bledsoe said. “It's like they are sending a signal to Black folks in Paris that you stay in your place in this community, in the shadows, intimidated.”
And keeping Blacks in their place is nothing new in Paris, say leaders, who remind that it’s the site of the first highly publicized lynching of a Black by a large White mob. In 1893, fugitive Henry White was captured in Arkansas and brought to Paris, where he was tortured and burned alive on a train bed as more than 10,000 angry townsfolk cheered and jeered.
Activists say that the Shaquanda sentence is nothing more than a modern-day lynching.
Cotton has been incarcerated at a youth prison in Brownwood, Texas, for the last year on a sentence that could run until her 21st birthday. But like many of the other youths in the system, she is eligible to earn early release if she achieves certain social, behavioral and educational milestones while in prison.
But according to The Chicago Tribune, officials at the Ron Jackson Correctional Complex repeatedly have extended Shaquanda's sentence because she refuses to admit guilt and because she reportedly was found with contraband in her cell – an extra pair of socks.
"She's not admitting any guilt, because she doesn't feel that she did anything," Anderson told BET.com. "Not to mention, who saw the pushing, if it did occur?"
Cotton's mother, Creola, who Anderson describes as "strong-willed," said her daughter was singled out because she accused the school district of racism on several occasions.
In fact, 12 discrimination complaints have been filed against the Paris Independent School District in recent years. District officials dispute the charges, but the U.S. Department of Education, which is still investigating the case, has reportedly asked the U.S. Department of Justice to get involved.
In 1998, Paris, Texas, was named the "Best Small Town in Texas" by Kevin Heubusch in his book The New Rating Guide to Life in America's Small Cities.
To some in Paris, sinister past is back
In Texas, a white teenager burns down her family's home and receives probation. A black one shoves a hall monitor and gets 7 years in prison. The state NAACP calls it `a signal to black folks.'
By Howard Witt
Tribune senior correspondent
Published March 12, 2007
PARIS, Texas -- The public fairgrounds in this small east Texas town look ordinary enough, like so many other well-worn county fair sites across the nation. Unless you know the history of the place.
There are no plaques or markers to denote it, but several of the most notorious public lynchings of black Americans in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries were staged at the Paris Fairgrounds, where thousands of white spectators would gather to watch and cheer as black men were dragged onto a scaffold, scalded with hot irons and finally burned to death or hanged.
Brenda Cherry, a local civil rights activist, can see the fairgrounds from the front yard of her modest home, in the heart of the "black" side of this starkly segregated town of 26,000. And lately, Cherry says, she's begun to wonder whether the racist legacy of those lynchings is rebounding in a place that calls itself "the best small town in Texas."
"Some of the things that happen here would not happen if we were in Dallas or Houston," Cherry said. "They happen because we are in this closed town. I compare it to 1930s."
There was the 19-year-old white man, convicted last July of criminally negligent homicide for killing a 54-year-old black woman and her 3-year-old grandson with his truck, who was sentenced in Paris to probation and required to send an annual Christmas card to the victims' family.
There are the Paris public schools, which are under investigation by the U.S. Education Department after repeated complaints that administrators discipline black students more frequently, and more harshly, than white students.
And then there is the case that most troubles Cherry and leaders of the Texas NAACP, involving a 14-year-old black freshman, Shaquanda Cotton, who shoved a hall monitor at Paris High School in a dispute over entering the building before the school day had officially begun.
The youth had no prior arrest record, and the hall monitor--a 58-year-old teacher's aide--was not seriously injured. But Shaquanda was tried in March 2006 in the town's juvenile court, convicted of "assault on a public servant" and sentenced by Lamar County Judge Chuck Superville to prison for up to 7 years, until she turns 21.
Just three months earlier, Superville sentenced a 14-year-old white girl, convicted of arson for burning down her family's house, to probation.
"All Shaquanda did was grab somebody and she will be in jail for 5 or 6 years?" said Gary Bledsoe, an Austin attorney who is president of the state NAACP branch. "It's like they are sending a signal to black folks in Paris that you stay in your place in this community, in the shadows, intimidated."
The Tribune generally does not identify criminal suspects younger than age 17, but is doing so in this case because the girl and her family have chosen to go public with their story.
None of the officials involved in Shaquanda's case, including the local prosecutor, the judge and Paris school district administrators, would agree to speak about their handling of it, citing a court appeal under way.
But the teen's defenders assert that long before the September 2005 shoving incident, Paris school officials targeted Shaquanda for scrutiny because her mother had frequently accused school officials of racism.
"Shaquanda started getting written up a lot after her mother became involved in a protest march in front of a school," said Sharon Reynerson, an attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid, who has represented Shaquanda during challenges to several of the disciplinary citations she received. "Some of the write-ups weren't fair to her or accurate, so we felt like we had to challenge each one to get the whole story."
Among the write-ups Shaquanda received, according to Reynerson, were citations for wearing a skirt that was an inch too short, pouring too much paint into a cup during an art class and defacing a desk that school officials later conceded bore no signs of damage.
Shaquanda's mother, Creola Cotton, does not dispute that her daughter can behave impulsively and was sometimes guilty of tardiness or speaking out of turn at school--behaviors that she said were manifestations of Shaquanda's attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, for which the teen was taking prescription medication.
Nor does Shaquanda herself deny that she pushed the hall monitor after the teacher's aide refused her permission to enter the school before the morning bell--although Shaquanda maintains that she was supposed to have been allowed to visit the school nurse to take her medication, and that the teacher's aide pushed her first.
But Cherry alleges that Shaquanda's frequent disciplinary write-ups, and the insistence of school officials at her trial that she deserved prison rather than probation for the shoving incident, fits in a larger pattern of systemic discrimination against black students in the Paris Independent School District.
In the past five years, black parents have filed at least a dozen discrimination complaints against the school district with the federal Education Department, asserting that their children, who constitute 40 percent of the district's nearly 4,000 students, were singled out for excessive discipline.
Send messages of encouragement!
Jackson Correctional Complex,
Unit 2, Dorm 4
P.O. Box 872
Brownwood, Texas 76804
Contact the Judge!
Honorable M.C. (Chuck) Superville, Jr., Judge
Lamar County Courthouse
119 North Main
Paris, TX 75460
Phone # 903-737-2410
Fax # 903-785-3858
Contact Governor Rick Perry!
Office of the Governor Main Switchboard: (512) 463-2000
[office hours are 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. CST]
Office of the Governor Fax: (512) 463-1849
Office of the Governor
P.O. Box 12428
Austin, Texas 78711-2428
Office of the Governor
State Insurance Building
1100 San Jacinto
Austin, Texas 78701