- Education on lockdown forum highlights failing policies (FCN, 01-17-2006)
- Zero tolerance: From the schoolhouse to the jailhouse (FCN, 04-12-2005)
- ‘Zero tolerance’ turning students into ‘criminals’ (FCN, 01-26-2004)
- Rev. Jackson leads protest to focus on ‘zero tolerance (FCN, 11-23-1999)
“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,” Shaquanda Cotton writes on her website, http://freeshaquandacotton.blogspot.com
Miss Cotton’s plight was just another example of head shaking, small town racism until the Chicago Tribune broke the story Mar. 12.
Since then, all eyes are on Paris, Texas and the treatment of this teenager, who should be finishing her schoolwork and getting ready for summer vacation. Instead, she is confined to the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) Facility.
“Shaquanda is a regular teenager,” said her mother, Creola Cotton, to The Final Call. “She was tardy to school sometimes; talked in class, but was never involved in anything serious. She had permission to enter school early to take her medication after breakfast.”
On the day in question, that’s what Shaquanda was trying to do. She claims that the teacher’s aide pushed her first and then she responded. Her mother complained to the principal about the incident, and instead of the teacher’s aide being reprimanded for grabbing a student, the school charged the teenager.
But what could have resulted in a wide range of punishments has resulted in Shaquanda’s indeterminate sentence that could leave her confined until she turns 21 years of age.
This wasn’t the first time Ms. Cotton had complained to the school about discrimination and unfair treatment of her daughter.
“They did this to her because of my complaints to the school about her disciplinary citations,” said Ms. Cotton.
Sharon Ryerson, an attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid, who represented Shaquanda during her mother’s challenges to the disciplinary challenges, agrees.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Atty. Ryerson stated, “Shaquanda started getting written up a lot after her mother became involved in a protest march in front of the school. 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 statements by Atty. Reyerson in the Chicago Tribune, 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.
The Cottons are not the only ones who have protested the school for racial discrimination. According to the Chicago Tribune, in the past five years, Black parents have filed at least a dozen discrimination complaints against the Paris public schools.
They are now being investigated by the Department of Education for repeated complaints that administrators discipline Black students more frequently and more harshly than White students.
The school contends that the Education Department has found those complaints to be unjustified.
However, the Chicago Tribune has reported that the Education Department has asked the Justice Department to mediate disputes between Black parents and the school district, but school officials pulled out of the process last December before it was completed.
The Community Responds
Brenda Cherry, a community activist, is the family’s spokesperson. She was in the courtroom with Shaquanda because they would not allow her mother to be there. She has seen the injustice from day one and continues to stand by the family.
“Black people don’t get the same treatment here in Lamar County as others. We don’t want special treatment, we want equal treatment,” Ms. Cherry told The Final Call. “Shaquanda could be out now if they wanted. The re-socialization process that TYC requires mandates that she confess for her crime. She doesn’t belong there.”
Why she is there is also a mystery to Shaquanda.
“She doesn’t understand why she’s there,” explained her mother.
The Black residents of Paris, Texas don’t understand either, and they’ve taken to the streets in protest.
On Mar. 19, nearly 200 members from various organizations, such as the Millions More Movement and New Black Panther Party, and city residents took to the streets to protest the treatment of Shaquanda Cotton.
They marched at the Paris Independent School District Administration building and later filled the grounds of the Lamar County Courthouse.
“They railroaded this girl and we want her released,” said Bryan Muhammad, co-chair of the Ft. Worth Millions More Movement. “This case magnifies the extreme racism in this small city. The Millions More Movement has secured a top juvenile attorney to aid and fight for Shaquanda’s appeal.”
Mr. Muhammad told The Final Call, “They’ve just about demolished every young Black man there. Now, they’re going after our girls. The family is considering a civil suit and several families have come forward that may form a class action suit. We are on this case, and won’t stop until we have justice.”