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
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
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
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
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
An attorney for the school district, Dennis Eichelbaum, said the Education
Department had determined all of the complaints to be unfounded.
"The [department] has explained that the school district has not and does
not discriminate, that the school district has been a leader and very
progressive when it comes to race relations, and that there was no validity to
the allegations made by the complainants," Eichelbaum said.
Not so clear
But the federal investigations of the school district are not so clear-cut,
and they are not finished. In one 2004 finding, Education Department officials
determined that black students at a Paris middle school were being written up
for disciplinary infractions more than twice as often as white students--and
eight times as often in one category, "class disruption."
The Education Department asked the U.S. Justice Department to try to
mediate disputes between black parents and the district, but school officials
pulled out of the process last December before it was concluded.
And in April 2006, the Education Department notified Paris school officials
that it was opening a new, comprehensive review to determine "whether the
district discriminated against African-American students on the basis of race"
between 2004 and 2006. Federal officials say that investigation is still in
According to one veteran Paris teacher, who asked not to be named for fear
of retribution, such discrimination is widespread.
"There is a philosophy of giving white kids a break and coming down on
black kids," said the teacher, who is white.
Not everyone in Paris agrees, however, that blacks are treated unfairly by
the city's institutions.
"I've lived here all my life, and I don't see that," said Mary Ann Reed
Fisher, one of two black members of the Paris City Council. "My kids went to
Paris High School, and they never had one minute of a problem with the school
system, the courts or the police."
A peculiar inmate
Meanwhile, Shaquanda, a first-time offender, remains something of an
anomaly inside the Texas Youth Commission prison system, where officials say
95 percent of the 2,500 juveniles in their custody are chronic, serious
offenders who already have exhausted county-level programs such as probation
and local treatment or detention.
"The Texas Youth Commission is reserved for those youth who are most
violent or most habitual," said commission spokesman Tim Savoy. "The whole
concept of commitment until your 21st birthday should be recognized as a
severe penalty, and that's why it's typically the last resort of the juvenile
system in Texas."
Inside the youth prison in Brownwood where she has been incarcerated for
the past 10 months--a prison currently at the center of a state scandal
involving a guard who allegedly sexually abused teenage inmates--Shaquanda,
who is now 15, says she has not been doing well.
Three times she has tried to injure herself, first by scratching her face,
then by cutting her arm. The last time, she said, she copied a method she saw
another young inmate try, knotting a sweater around her neck and yanking it
tight so she couldn't breathe. The guards noticed her sprawled inside her cell
before it was too late.
She tried to harm herself, Shaquanda said, out of depression, desperation
and fear of the hardened young thieves, robbers, sex offenders and parole
violators all around her whom she must try to avoid each day.
"I get paranoid when I get around some of these girls," Shaquanda said.
"Sometimes I feel like I just can't do this no more--that I can't survive