A teenager has been jailed for more than a year for shoving a teacher's aide at her high school, sparking anger and heightening racial tensions in rural East Texas.
Shaquandra Cotton, now 15, claims the teacher's aide pushed her first and would not let her enter school before the morning bell in 2005. A jury convicted her in March 2006 on a felony count of shoving a public servant, who was not seriously injured.
The girl is in the Ron Jackson Correctional Complex in Brownwood, about 300 miles from her home in Paris. The facility is part of an embattled juvenile system that is the subject of state and federal investigations into allegations that staff members physically and sexually abused inmates.
Under the sentence handed down by Lamar County Judge Chuck Superville, she will remain at the facility until she meets state rehabilitation standards or reaches her 21st birthday.
But her family and civil rights activists say they want her home now. They are condemning the sentence as unusually harsh and say it shows a justice system that punishes young offenders differently, depending on their race.
Creola Cotton, Shaquandra's mother, and activists argue that while Superville sent Shaquandra to the state's juvenile prison system, he gave a white 14-year-old arsonist probation.
As many as 400 people marched and rallied in Paris on Tuesday, the second such protest in as many weeks by civil rights groups.
Meanwhile, the Paris school district fiercely denied claims of racism and chided the girl's mother for "playing a game" to start controversy.
Creola Cotton says her daughter received an unjust punishment for pushing the Paris High School employee. Her complaints have prompted federal civil rights investigations into the school district.
"My daughter has been (at Brownwood) a year now," Creola Cotton said. "It's time for her to come home."
Judge argues mother's care is detrimental
In an interview with The Paris News, Superville said he chose the sentence because witnesses testified that placing Shaquandra back in her mother's care was not the best decision.
"If Shaquandra had been white, the outcome would have been the same," Superville said. "My decision was based on facts and law, and I am confident this was the correct decision based on the facts I was presented."
About 41 percent of students are black in Paris, a city of about 26,000 just south of the Oklahoma border. Fewer than 10 percent of the district's teachers are black, according to the most recent audit by the Texas Education Agency.
Dennis Eichelbaum, an attorney for the Paris school district, said the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has vindicated the district by finding no evidence of discrimination in three cases. Five other investigations remain open.
Creola Cotton is preventing the district from fairly defending itself by refusing to let the school district make her daughter's entire record public, Eichelbaum said.
"Mrs. Cotton has been wrongfully attacking the character of the district," Eichelbaum said. "She's being disingenuous with regard to her daughter being an innocent child."
Added Eichelbaum: "She's playing a game."
Prosecutors say they offered Shaquandra a plea agreement that would have reduced the felony charge to a misdemeanor and given her two years' probation. But Creola Cotton rejected the plea on behalf of her daughter, prosecutors said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education said the agency handled nearly 1,000 discrimination complaints last year.