HOUSTON -- A Texas appellate court on Thursday let stand the conviction of Shaquanda Cotton, the black teenager from the small east Texas town of Paris whose sentence of up to seven years in youth prison for pushing a hall monitor at her high school provoked national criticism and fueled allegations of racial discrimination in the town’s schools and courts.
The Sixth Appellate District Court in Texarkana denied the 16-year-old’s appeal of her March, 2006, conviction for assault on a public servant and turned aside her claim that she received ineffective assistance from her defense lawyer at her trial in juvenile court before Lamar County Judge Chuck Superville.
The appeals court decision has no immediate impact on the teenager, who was ordered released in late March by a special conservator in charge of the state’s juvenile justice agency after she had served one year of her sentence. Her case rose to national prominence after it was featured in a March 12 Chicago Tribune story, which noted that, just three months before Superville sentenced Cotton, who was 14 at the time of the shoving incident, to prison, he sentenced a 14-year-old white girl convicted of the more serious crime of arson to probation.
Nevertheless, the appeals court pointedly declined to issue an opinion on the racial dimensions of the case or the proportionality of Cotton’s prison sentence -- issues that were central to the civil rights activists who took up the teenager’s cause.
Thursday’s verdict dismayed Cotton and her mother, Creola, who had hoped the appeals court would clear her name.
Cotton, who had a history of school disciplinary write-ups and suspensions in the Paris public schools, was tried for shoving the hall monitor during an early-morning altercation in Septembe, 2005, after the hall monitor had denied her request to enter the school before classes were scheduled to begin. The victim, a 58-year-old teacher’s aide, complained of pain in her arm after the incident although medical records showed that doctors who treated her at a local emergency room could find no evidence of an injury.
But Cotton’s defenders alleged that she had been unfairly targeted by school officials because her mother was an outspoken critic of what she asserted were racist disciplinary practices inside the Paris Independent School District. Since last year, the district has been the subject of an ongoing civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Education, which is probing whether black students, who make up 40 percent of the district’s 4,000 students, are routinely punished more harshly than whites for similar infractions.
Among the disciplinary write-ups Cotton received, for example, were citations for pouring too much paint into a cup during an art class.