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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 October 2007, 16:17 GMT
Fourteen, and at the heart of a race row
By Julian O'Halloran
BBC News, File on Four

The last time the name Paris, Texas, figured in the national consciousness of the US was in 1984 when Wim Wenders' classic art-house movie was released, starring Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski.

Shaquanda Cotton
Shaquanda Cotton insists that she is innocent

But the town, near the north-east state border, is now firmly on the radar of African-American activists across the US, following the jailing for up to seven years of a 14-year-old girl two years ago.

The case of Shaquanda Cotton is the kind of incident which symbolises racism in the justice system, her supporters argue.

The teenager was convicted of assaulting a public servant after she allegedly pushed a teaching assistant trying to stop her entering Paris High School.


One morning, when her bus was late, Shaquanda says she went to enter the school as usual to collect medication before classes.

But she found her way barred by a male teacher who, she alleges, pushed her, her head hitting a door.

The teenager claims staff then let two white students into the building and that she asked a female teaching assistant, "Why couldn't I come in and then you let those white kids come in?"

The teachers denied pushing the girl and alleged she had tried to barge in and threatened them verbally.

Julian Bond
I hazard a guess that if you went into any city or town of any size in the US you would find disparate treatment of African Americans
Julian Bond
NAACP chair

A jury believed the staff and Shaquanda Cotton was sentenced up to seven years in a state youth prison.

Her mother Creola Cotton said her daughter was refused parole after a year because she protested her innocence and for other "ludicrous" reasons, including the possession of an extra pair of socks and a plastic cup.

She was freed with 500 youngsters when an investigation found many inmates had been denied parole for trivial reasons.

Judge Chuck Superville has defended the sentence he gave to Miss Cotton saying "the outcome would have been the same" if she had been white.

He added that Miss Cotton had carried out an unprovoked assault on an elderly woman and the teenager had received a fair disposition of her case.

District Attorney Gary Young has also strenuously denied allegations of wider racial discrimination in the justice system in Paris.

"Skin colour has nothing to do with the prosecution of cases in this county," he told the BBC.

But the Washington-based Campaign for Youth Justice, a group which has vigorously collected the facts and statistics on juvenile incarceration across the US, says the Shaquanda Cotton case illustrates a wider problem.

"The young African American is treated much more harshly, more likely to be referred to the justice system and much more likely to be detained, incarcerated or sent to an adult criminal court than the white youth," Chief Executive Liz Ryan told the BBC.

Different treatment

Julian Bond, a seasoned civil rights campaigner and chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), said his organisation is determined to highlight such cases.

Mr Bond, a veteran of the protests against racial segregation in the 1960s added, "I hazard a guess that if you went into any city or town of any size in the United States you would find disparate treatment of African Americans."

Racial tensions are rising in the US, and a series of nooses have been hung in locations linked to black organisations and academics, and even a black Baptist church.

The nooses recall the once common lynchings of black people in the Deep South.

In the small Louisiana town of Jena white students hung nooses in a schoolyard tree, last year. It happened after a black student stood in its shade, a privilege previously enjoyed only by white pupils.

Three white students who hung the nooses suffered brief in-school suspension but were not charged with any offence.

Racial tensions then increased there. A white pupil at the school was allegedly attacked by six black teenagers who were initially charged with attempted murder.

The charges were later reduced but the case has achieved notoriety and the group has become known as "the Jena Six".

Hear the full story on Radio 4: File on 4 Tue 30 Oct 2007 GMT, repeated Sun 4 Nov 1700 GMT or online at File on 4 website

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