15 year old black girl sent to prison for shoving teacher aid
Note: Stories listed in chronological order
Student sent to TYC for shoving aide
By Charles Richards
The Paris News
March 12, 2006
A 14-year-old girl has been sentenced to a state juvenile correction facility “for an indeterminate period not to exceed her 21st birthday” for shoving a 58-year-old teacher’s aide.
The incident occurred Sept. 30 at Paris High School, while the aide was on hall monitor duty. The girl has a history of problems at school, according to court testimony.
County Judge Chuck Superville said the girl must spend a minimum of one year at a Texas Youth Commission facility. How much longer she will stay depends upon her progress, the judge said.
A three-man, three-woman jury listened to testimony Thursday and Friday before being handed the case about 3:30 p.m. Friday. The jury deliberated just 10 minutes before reporting it had a verdict: “We the jury find it true that the respondent ... did engage in delinquent conduct by commission of an assault on a public servant as charged in the petition.”
Superville discharged the jury, and the trial moved into the punishment phase, which continued for about two and a half hours before defense attorney Wesley Newell and the Lamar County district attorney’s office rested about 6:15 p.m. Friday.
School officials said they have dealt with the girl, who is now a high school freshman, many times on disciplinary issues dating back several years.
Newell argued for probation, and Superville had gone on record that sending a teenager to the TYC was something he generally would do only as a last resort.
Prosecutors argued against probation, saying that the girl’s mother is perhaps her biggest problem and that the girl has no hope of getting better as long as she’s in the same home as her mother. District Attorney Gary Young said the mother’s response to any problem at school was to paint school officials as racist.
During the punishment phase, a half-dozen or so teachers — both white and black — from the high school or from Paris Alternative School, where the girl was transferred after the incident last September, described the girl as “openly defiant, generally did not follow rules.”
Michael Johnson, a teacher/coach at the alternative school, said after a teacher “wrote her up” for violation of rules, the girl told him “I’m going to bust her in the nose.” She wanted to go home, but he made her go to the office with him, Johnson said. He said she told him, “You don’t know me very well, because I’ll burn this school down.”
Johnson, who is black, said the girl’s mother berated him, calling him the equivalent of an Uncle Tom.
The jury had three women, one of whom was black, and three men.
PHS principal Gary Preston said the school district made available every resource it had “but regularly got road-blocked with non-support of her mother.” He said he knows of nothing more that can be done.
“I think (the girl) is capable, but she is enabled by a mother who won’t support the attempts to help her. ... Up until now, I think it has been very harmful for her to be in the same home with her mother.”
The girl admitted pushing the teacher’s aide, Cleda Brownfield, but said she did so only after Brownfield shoved her first.
The Sept. 30 incident occurred about 15 to 20 minutes before regular classes were to begin at 8:30 a.m. at Paris High School. Brownfield was the hall monitor in a building where some students were having meetings and others were being helped by tutors.
The hall monitor’s job is to lock the doors about 8:05 a.m., keeping all other students out of the hallways until 8:30 a.m. to keep disruptions at a minimum. Brownfield said she was on her way to lock the door when the girl walked in. When the girl was told she couldn’t come in, she protested, saying she had to go to the restroom, Brownfield testified.
She told her she’d have to use a restroom in the cafeteria across the courtyard, and the girl finally left, she said. Minutes later, when another student was admitted into the building for a meeting, the girl insisted that she also be let in. When the girl told her, “I’ll knock your block off,” and moved to come in, Brownfield said, she put up her hands in a defensive posture, and the girl responded by shoving her hard.
A teacher, Jerry Fleming, was nearby and the girl complained that he had a pencil in his hand, causing a cut on her hand when he put out his hand to restrain her. He also stepped on her shoelaces, causing her to fall, and she bumped her head, she said.
School resource officer Brad Ruthart testified he was on duty in the parking lot when he was summoned to the building because Brownfield “had been assaulted by a student.” He said he found her in the lounge and the student seated outside the principal’s office.
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,” said Ruthart, a Paris police officers who works as a school resource officer for PISD.
The girl “was very calm, didn’t appear to be a threat,” Ruthart testified. During the next half hour, he talked to the various teachers who were either involved or had seen part of what happened. He also talked to the girl and to several of her friends, all of whom insisted that Brownfield shoved first.
“I thought it didn’t seem like something Brownfield would do. From what I knew of her and from what others were saying, it didn’t add up,” he said. Ruthart said he had known the teacher’s aide for several years and described her as “mild-mannered, soft-spoken, a grandmotherly type.”
The girl’s mother testified late Thursday afternoon that she got dressed and drove to Paris High School after receiving a telephone call that her daughter had been involved in an incident.
“She was sitting in the office with two other girls, crying. She had a knot on her head and a cut on her hand,” she said.
She talked with Ruthart and Preston, she said.
“I was upset because my daughter was sitting there hurting, and nobody was doing anything to help her. I asked them why nothing had been done to treat her injuries,” she said.
Newell asked if she got any satisfaction from them.
“No, they could care less,” she said.
She took her daughter to the hospital emergency room, where she was treated for a contusion on her head, a laceration on her hand and a sprained neck, she said.
About an hour after the incident, Brownfield was removed from the school on a stretcher and was taken by ambulance to the hospital.
The girl’s mother said her daughter has Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and was trying to get into the building that day so she could get medication from the school nurse.
Brownfield testified the girl made no mention of needing to see the nurse and that if she had, she would have been allowed to do so. Ruthart said the girl also said nothing to him about having wanted in the building to see the school nurse.
Texas Teen's Imprisonment Sparks Protests
By Sylvia Moreno
March 29, 2007; A11
AUSTIN, March 28 -- Civil rights activists are rallying around a 15-year-old black girl who has been in a high-security juvenile detention center for a year for shoving a hall monitor at her school and whose sentence was just extended for what authorities call possession of contraband: an extra pair of socks and a plastic foam cup.
One of 4,562 juveniles in the Texas Youth Commission's custody, Shaquanda Cotton may have remained incarcerated in obscurity, fretted over by her mother and a handful of supporters in her home town of Paris, in northeast Texas near the Oklahoma border. But a Chicago Tribune article has prompted an inquiry by the Rev. Al Sharpton and spurred several hundred protesters to travel this week from Dallas to the courthouse where Cotton was convicted. Internet message boards and blogs have been flooded with postings crying "Free Shaquanda Cotton!"
Almost every bit of information in the Cotton case is in dispute -- from the allegation that on Sept. 30, 2005, Shaquanda shoved a 58-year-old white teacher's aide acting as a hall monitor to whether her mother was offered the opportunity keep the teenager at home under the less-onerous option of probation.
Her mother, Creola; the state NAACP; local African American activists and a few white lawyers in Paris contend that the girl and her mother are victims of a discriminatory school system.
They say that the Cottons have been targeted by the Paris school district because of Creola's involvement in a group that complained to the U.S. Department of Education about discrimination against black students. A spokesman for the Education Department said it is investigating whether the district discriminated during the 2004-05 and 2005-06 school years "in the administration of its discipline policies."
Cotton and her supports also say a white judge who gave a white 14-year-old girl probation after she was convicted of burning down her family's home treated Shaquanda unfairly.
Representatives of the Paris school district and the criminal justice system adamantly dispute the allegations. Lamar County Judge Chuck Superville, who sentenced Cotton and the arsonist, was not available for comment. But a spokesman for the Lamar County district attorney's office addressed questions.
"This girl was adjudicated delinquent by a jury . . . on assault of a public servant," Allan Hubbard said about Shaquanda. "She pushed the teacher down, and anyone who does that will continue to be prosecuted to the level of the law that is allowed under the Texas Family Code. It doesn't matter what color they are."
Hubbard said that Shaquanda was offered two years' probation if she pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault, a plea deal that Creola Cotton refused because her daughter, who has no previous criminal history, said she did not shove or push the teacher's aide. Hubbard said that after a jury trial on the felony charge of assault on a public servant, the judge sentenced Shaquanda to a minimum of a year in a youth facility because the mother would not cooperate in establishing home-supervised probation.
Creola Cotton disputes that allegation. That issue is among several raised in the appeal of Shaquanda's conviction to the 6th Court of Appeals of Texas. "The judge sentenced her and he didn't have sufficient evidence to show there was not an alternative" to the youth facility, said Gary Waite, the attorney handling the girl's appeal. "The evidence was legally insufficient to establish that her mother couldn't provide the care and support to meet conditions of probation."
Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas chapter of the NAACP, called the circumstances of Shaquanda's incarceration "abominable."
"It's a clear miscarriage of justice. If you take the accusation, there is no way a colorblind court system would have allowed that situation to go forward," he said. "The facts don't justify the punishment. It is clearly excessive and has really harmed this young girl."
A spokesman for the Texas Youth Commission, an agency recently turned over to a conservator because of long-ignored allegations of sexual abuse of incarcerated juveniles by facility employees, said the extension of Cotton's sentence will be examined. Youth facility supervisors can extend a juvenile's sentence until he or she turns 21 for any number of infractions. About 45 percent of the more than 4,600 juveniles have received extended sentences in recent years. Allegations have been made that sentences were extended arbitrarily and to intimidate teenagers.
Although forbidden by law to comment on a specific juvenile, Youth Commission spokesman Jim Hurley said that "the publicly cited case of someone getting a term extended for having contraband which turned out to be an extra pair of socks is indescribable. It is beyond belief, if it is true, and we will have a panel reviewing each of these cases."
By Howard Witt
March 12, 2007
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.
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 progress.
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 this."
15 YEAR OLD GIRL, GETS SEVEN YEARS IN PRISON FOR PUSHING A TEACHER
Tracy Stokes, BET.com News Staff & Wire Services
March 28, 2007 –
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 ha d 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
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 no t 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.
New York Times
April 1, 2007
DALLAS, March 31 (AP) — A 15-year-old black girl whose yearlong incarceration for pushing a teacher’s aide brought objections from civil rights advocates nationwide is scheduled to be released, a state lawmaker said.
The lawmaker, State Representative Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat and chairman of the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee, said a Texas Youth Commission official told him that the girl, Shaquanda Cotton, was being freed after serving 12 months in a facility in Brownwood.
She was to be released Saturday to her mother, who was unable to pick her up Friday because of bad weather, Mr. Dutton said.
“This is one of those cases that is the poster child of everything wrong with the criminal justice system,” Mr. Dutton said.
Mr. Dutton said he was informed of Ms. Cotton’s pending release by Jay Kimbrough, whom Gov. Rick Perry named this week to lead the embattled commission temporarily. Jim Hurley, a commission spokesman, said he could not talk about specific cases.
Ms. Cotton was sentenced on a felony count for shoving the teacher’s aide before the morning bell at Paris High School in 2005. The aide was not seriously injured.
Advocates say the fact that the same judge sentenced a white 14-year-old girl to only probation for arson signaled evidence of racial bias.
Prosecutors in Ms. Cotton’s case expressed surprise at the news, saying they were told Friday morning by the commission that she had not met the agency’s standards for release.
“Apparently now, cases that get the most attention from screaming activists can grab the ear of state legislators who can simply order people to be freed from incarceration,” said Allan Hubbard, a spokesman for the Lamar County district attorney’s office. “That could be dangerous.”
Ms. Cotton was eligible to be released on March 17, but she had not met the agency’s standards for release concerning academics, behavior and “correctional therapy,” Mr. Hubbard said.
Creola Cotton, the girl’s mother, could not be reached for comment.
Prosecutors say they offered Ms. Cotton a plea agreement that would have reduced the felony charge to a misdemeanor and given her two years of probation. But the girl’s mother rejected the offer, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors have also played down comparisons of Ms. Cotton’s case with the white arsonist who burned down her family’s house, saying a family member stepped forward in that case and was willing to meet the terms of probation. The girl later violated her probation and was also sent to a youth commission facility, Mr. Hubbard said.
Judge Chuck Superville, who sentenced both teenagers, has said witness testimony indicated that Ms. Cotton’s mother would not cooperate with probation requirements if her daughter were to be released back into her custody.
Judge Superville gave Ms. Cotton an indefinite sentence, but she had to serve at least 12 months given the severity of her offense.