Shaquanda Cotton's Sentencing Exemplifies Rehabilitation Gone Bad
By Yoji Cole
Sentencing a 14-year-old to seven years in prison for shoving a school hall monitor doesn't sound fair. That the girl in question was sentenced by a judge who three months earlier sentenced a 14-year-old white girl convicted of arson to probation seems criminal.
But that's the horrific predicament Shaquanda Cotton faces—seven years in the Texas Youth Commission (TYC). Cotton was convicted of assaulting a public servant because she shoved a 58-year-old hall monitor at Paris High School.
"Race played a major factor in this case because if Shaquanda was a young, white female there is no way they would allow such a heightened charge to go forward," says Gary Bledsoe, an Austin, Texas, attorney and president of the NAACP Texas branch. "Even if you take what the teacher's aide said to be true ... all she said was that Shaquanda lightly pushed her ... you're telling me that's a felony?"
Paris has a bloodied history when it comes to race. The city, with a population of 26,000 (Census 2000 counted 73 percent white, 22 percent black, 4 pecent Latino, 0.95 percent Native American and 0.66 percent Asian American), was the site of several public lynchings of black Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Paris public schools are also being investigated by the U.S. Education Department following repeated complaints that administrators discipline black students more frequently and harshly than they do white students. U.S. Education Department representatives confirmed an investigation is under way but were unavailable for comment.
Currently, Cotton is being held at TYC, which is also under investigation for sexual and physical abuse of inmates. Moreover, the facility makes clear in its "Family Guide" for relatives of juveniles that "You may have heard about adult prisons, where once you 'do the time,' you go home. It does not work this way at TYC." That's because of TYC's "resocialization" program that the prison says "enhance[s] personal accountability of delinquent youth." Parents of incarcerated youth, however, report that the rule effectively keeps kids in prison indefinitely.
One of the rule's steps is to admit guilt in order to be considered for parole. But Cotton says she was defending herself from being hit by the hall monitor when she shoved her, so she doesn't believe she is guilty.
"She can't go from step one to step two until she admits guilt, so you have to swallow your beliefs or stand up for your principals," says Bledsoe, who added that Cotton's time in TYC has already been extended because she violated a resocialization rule. She had one more pair of socks than is allowed. "We're trying to get them to invalidate the rule," says Bledsoe.
Cotton's mother, Creola, reported that her daughter is in jail because she has protested and filed complaints against the school and police department. Prosecutors argued during the punishment phase of the trial that Creola Cotton is an unfit mother, according to reported a story on the district attorney's web site.
"Shaquanda came from a very structured home. She didn't run around; she didn't get out in the street; she didn't do drugs; she didn't drink alcohol; she didn't do any of those things because I didn't let her," Cotton was quoted as saying in the story. "The only reason that they could give that Shaquanda should be removed from my home is that I filed complaints against the school and the police department. So how does that make me an unfit parent?"
A spokesperson for the district attorney's office, Allan Hubbard, was not available to speak to DiversityInc.com, but in the story that appeared on the district attorney's web site, Hubbard was quoted as saying Cotton's case "is not a racial issue."
"There are people who commit crimes and there are people who do not agree with the way those crimes are handled and the process. This is not a racial issue with this office," Hubbard said in the story. "There will always be people who object to the level that we pursue something for prosecution."
Now Cotton's future rests in the hands of Bledsoe and others who have taken up her cause.