Shaquanda Cotton

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Shaquanda Cotton (sometimes incorrectly referred to in the media as "Shaquandra" or "Shaquana") is an African-American girl who, in March 2006, at the age of 15, was sentenced to an indeterminate time (not to exceed her 21st birthday) in the Texas Youth Commission's juvenile detention facilities for shoving a teacher's assistant at her high school in Paris, Texas, U.S.A.[1]

The sentence[edit]

Shaquanda was tried in the town's juvenile court, convicted by a jury of "assault on a public servant" for shoving Cleda Brownfield (a teacher's assistant at Paris high school in the Paris Independent School District), and sentenced by Lamar County Judge M.C. "Chuck" Superville, Jr. to the Texas Youth Commission for up to seven years, not to exceed her 21st birthday.[2] She was sentenced when she was 14 and served over a year at Ron Jackson unit in Brownwood, Texas.

The incident[edit]

According to trial testimony, the incident with the teacher's aide happened on September 30, 2005 about twenty minutes before classes began at Paris High School, however the testimony was conflicting. Teacher's aide Cleda Brownfield claimed to have locked the school building's door at 8:05 am in accordance with school policy. Brownfield testified that Cotton approached her, attempting to enter the building "saying she had to go to the restroom." Brownfield allegedly told Cotton she would have to use a restroom in the cafeteria until the building was opened at 8:30. Cotton allegedly asked to see the nurse to get her medication. Cotton left, then returned when she saw several white students being allowed to enter. Cotton asked why they were allowed to go in and she was not. According to Brownfield and teacher Jerry Fleming, Cotton then allegedly told Brownfield "I'll knock your block off" and attempted to push her way in. Brownfield allegedly put her hand up "in a defensive posture" and Cotton allegedly "responded by shoving her." According to defense witnesses, Fleming and Brownfield shoved Cotton and injured her. Medical reports revealed Cotton sustained a contusion to her head and a cut on her hand, as well as a strained neck.[3] School authorities then summoned Paris Police officer Brad Ruthart (a school resource officer assigned to the campus), who then met with both Brownfield and Cotton about the incident.[3]

According to Ruthart's testimony, Brownfield "was crying, very upset, holding her arm. I asked her if she was OK, and she said she was not. I felt she needed medical help. She was so upset she had difficulty talking." Ruthart testified that Cotton, who was being held in the office, "was very calm, didn’t appear to be a threat" at this point. According to Brownfield's statement, she wanted to return to work but was told by Ruthart to go to the hospital. Several teachers testified that Cotton instigated the attack. Several students testified that Brownfield and teacher Jerry Fleming "shoved first." Ruthart stated he preferred to believe Brownfield's version, and she was "mild-mannered, soft-spoken, a grandmotherly type."[3]

Cotton did not testify at the trial. Brownfield testified that Cotton never requested to visit the nurse's office, and Ruthart testified that Cotton made no mention of needing to visit the nurse's office when he questioned her about the incident afterward. He also admitted that he never questioned her regarding her injuries or needing to visit the nurse.[3]

Approximately two hours after the incident Brownfield was placed on a stretcher and taken to the hospital by ambulance. However, no evidence of injuries to Brownfield was ever produced at trial. Cotton's mother also drove her to the emergency room for the cut on her hand, head contusion and sprained neck that she suffered during the exchange.[3]

Prior to the incident[edit]

Ms. Cotton had several disciplinary writeups while a student at Paris ISD prior to the incident. Some allege that some of the writeups before the incident were in retaliation for her mother Creola Cotton and Brenda Cherry, who were co-founders of a civil rights organization called Concerned Citizens For Racial Equality, filing civil rights complaints against the school district on numerous occasions, and that the writeups increased dramatically after the incident.[4]

At Cotton's trial "a half-dozen or so teachers — mostly white and two blacks" testified about her past disciplinary problems. One teacher described her as someone who was "openly defiant" and "generally did not follow rules." Teacher Michael Johnson, an African-American testified that Cotton threatened another teacher, saying "I’m going to bust her in the nose." Teacher Althea Dixon, also an African-American, testified that she had handled only two problems, one being a skirt that was an inch too short and the other being Cotton pouring too much paint into a styrofoam cup. The majority of the writeups were for minor things such as tardiness but were used as prior offenses at trial.[3]

The criminal charge[edit]

Cotton was charged with felony assault on a public servant by Lamar County District Attorney Gary D. Young. After the story received national attention, Young claimed to have offered a plea deal to reduce the sentence to a misdemeanor count with two years of supervised probation. Cotton's attorney, Wesley Newell, confirmed the plea deal was indeed offered in a statement to the Houston Chronicle.[5] Cotton maintained her innocence, meaning she declined the plea bargain offer in favor of a bench trial.

Cotton's jury consisted of three men and three women, one of whom was African-American. After testimony, the jury reached a guilty verdict on the higher felony count of assaulting a public servant in less than 10 minutes.[3]

During the punishment phase of the trial, prosecutors recommended sentencing to the Texas Youth Commission facility. Judge Superville stated that this sentence would be a "last resort" for the case. Prosecutors argued that Cotton's mother Creola was an impediment to probation and stated that her response to any disciplinary problem for her daughter at school was "to paint school officials as racist." School officials including Johnson testified to this point. Johnson stated that after he wrote Cotton up, Creola Cotton "berated him" and called him an "Uncle Tom." [3]

Creola Cotton denied making this allegation against Johnson. Civil rights activist Brenda Cherry was featured in an interview with the African American News and Issues newspaper, where she stated that a "plantation mentality" existed in the Paris school district. Cherry described Johnson and Althea Dixon, another African-American teacher and vice principal, who testified about Shaquanda's disciplinary problems, as "Plantation Negroes" who have "sold their souls to the master for crumbs and a few pieces of silver". Cherry also claimed the Paris Independent School District was racist and punished black students at eight times the rate of white/other students.[6]

Paris High School Principal Gary Preston testified at the sentencing phase that the school's attempts to discipline Shaquanda "regularly got road-blocked with non-support of her mother." However, he also stated he had never had a problem with Shaquanda and she had always done what he told her to do. He testified that school staff has a right to do anything to students outside of bodily harm if they fail to obey. Judge Superville then sentenced Cotton to up to seven years in the Texas Youth Commission facility.[3]

The controversy[edit]

The controversy over Cotton's imprisonment first garnered attention when Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune featured it in a column on March 12, 2007. According to Witt's article:

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." Creola Cotton did 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 teacher after being pushed first and injured, although Shaquanda's mother maintains that she was supposed to have been allowed to visit the school nurse to take her medication. Brenda Cherry, a local activist, 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 district.[7]

Cherry became the family spokesperson of Creola and Shaquanda Cotton during the controversy. District Attorney Young claims that Cherry belongs to a radical organization that expresses "anti-white" sentiments and is aligned with the New Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam.[8] Both the New Black Panthers and Nation of Islam are considered "hate groups" by the Southern Poverty Law Center. [1] Concerned Citizens For Racial Equality is not listed as a hate group. All protests have been peaceful and no racist statements have been identified as coming from Cherry or the civil rights organization, Concerned Citizens For Racial Equality.

On March 20, 2007 Cherry led a protest attended by hundreds of Nation of Islam and New Black Panther activists in front of the Paris School District Building. The protesters demanded the resignation of Superintendent Paul Trull and Assistant Superintendent Robert High. Protesters called High, who is African-American, a "sell-out Negro." The march was organized by Cherry, the Dallas Black Panthers and the Tarrant County Local Organizing Committee.[9] The marcher's slogan was "Free Baby Cotton!"

Witt's reporting of the case was disputed by the Paris School District. Assistant Superintindent of Human Resources Robert High accused Witt of skewing his facts in favor of Cotton and stated "It's unfortunate that Mr. Witt would come to such a broad conclusion based upon limited information." However, Witt attempted to obtain information from the district prior to the article, but, due to privacy laws, was refused.[10] Local newspaper columnist Philip Hamilton accused Witt of engaging in a "journalistic lynching" of Paris by painting an emotionally charged picture of the case "lashed with false statements, omitted facts and inaccurate information." According to Hamilton, Witt presented a fictional portrait of Paris as a "starkly segregated" community where racial violence is common. Witt's original column intermixed references to 19th century lynchings of black residents on the Paris town fairgrounds with his commentary on Cotton's currently pending case. Hamilton also charged Witt with intentionally omitting the fact that two black teachers and administrators testified against Cotton at her trial.[11]

Early release[edit]

After spending over a year behind bars, Cotton was released on April 1, 2007, as her case received national attention from civil-rights advocates and media outlets.[12] "I feel like I have a second chance," she said, "I'm going to be a better person now. I'm a good person, but I want to be a better person."[13]

School officials, the Paris district attorney and the judge have all strongly denied that race played a role in the prosecution and sentencing of Cotton. But her case has coincided with an ongoing investigation of the Paris school district by the U.S. Department of Education, which is examining allegations that the district systemically discriminates against African-American students by disciplining them more frequently and more harshly than caucasians.[13]

The special conservator now in charge of the Texas Youth Commission (TYC), Jay Kimbrough (who is charged with overhauling the TYC due to a spreading sex scandal involving prison officials who allegedly coerced sex from inmates) decided that Shaquanda merited immediate release.[13] Kimbrough claims his decision was not based on the circumstances of the teenager's prosecution and sentence, but rather on the arbitrary way in which her indeterminate sentence had been extended by prison authorities. Authorities penalized her because she was found with "contraband" in her cell—i.e., an extra pair of socks.[13] However, the day before she was released Cotton was listed as having reached level 2 out of 4 on two important TYC release criteria: behavior and correctional therapy, which means having an extra pair of socks (which is distributed by TYC) can prevent a juvenile from reaching their level's goals.

Cotton was the first of an estimated 400 juveniles across the state whom Kimbrough ordered released from custody. According to authorities, those youths have all also satisfied their minimum sentences and committed no serious violations while in custody.[13]

Cotton was featured in a two-page spread in the September 2007 issue of Seventeen magazine.[14]

Cotton and her mother were invited to be guests on the Montel Williams Show to discuss her plight. The show aired October 2, 2007.[15]

On October 30, 2007, a documentary by Julian O'Halloran BBC News File On Four featuring Cotton was aired.[16]

Appeal[edit]

On July 6, 2007 a court in Texarkana, Texas denied Cotton's appeal of her conviction. The courtroom "pointedly declined" to rule on the racial aspects of the crime or if Cotton had been discriminated against by the judge.[17]

Notes[edit]

References[edit]