More than 90,000 people have rallied behind one African-American teenager in a recent Change.org petition, accusing an entire Texas school district of discriminatory disciplinary action.
“Drop the felony charges against Joquan Wallace,” reads the petition, organized by Paris, Texas-based civil rights activist Brenda Cherry. “Stop the School to Prison Pipeline at Paris Independent School District.”
“It’s all for nothing,” Cherry told BET.com. “He wasn’t doing anything but going to the bathroom.”
The protest comes close behind a recent report by the U.S. Department of Education confirming that Black students face disproportionately harsher discipline than other students, even as preschoolers.
The story begins on Feb. 24, when Paris High School senior Joquan Wallace received permission to leave his last period class to use the bathroom. What followed next depends on whom you ask.
According to Wallace and the statements of two student witnesses, Paris High Principal Gary Preston and school officer Joe McCarthy confronted Wallace about not being in class, before slamming the stunned 155-pound student around the classroom and putting him into a headlock.
In the subsequent police report and expulsion hearing, both Preston and Officer McCarthy claim that Wallace refused the principal’s request to come to his office and became increasingly belligerent, striking the two men in the face, back and shoulders. While there are small discrepancies between both documents, neither claimed that Preston and McCarthy ever touched Wallace during the incident.
Ultimately, what began as an excused trip to the bathroom ended in the student’s arrest, a trip to the emergency room, an expulsion and two felony counts of assault on public servants.
A star track and football player once on track to receive athletic college scholarships, Wallace now attends an alternative disciplinary school. Prior to the incident, his only misbehaviors were two tardy marks, as stated in his expulsion hearing.
The date of Wallace’s court case has yet to be announced or dismissed, placing Wallace and his family in a state of limbo. District Attorney Gary Young did not respond to a request for a phone interview. However, a member of his office staff claimed not to know anything about Wallace or his case.
Dion Wallace, Joquan’s mother, told BET.com that the best scenario would be Preston and McCarthy losing their jobs.
“This is not the first kid they’ve hurt or tried to ruin their lives,” she said. “They've gotten away with it for so long.”
Both Cherry and local civil lawyer Sharon Reynerson of Lonestar Legal Aid also believe that Paris High School has a history of treating African-American students differently than white students.
They pointed to Shaquanda Cotton, the former Paris High student who was sentenced for up to seven years in prison at 14 years old for shoving a teacher’s aide. Cotton’s story rose to national prominence after the Chicago Tribune detailed how a 14-year-old white girl convicted of arson was only sentenced to probation by the same judge.
Reynerson also pointed to the cases of autistic student Joshua Mark Washington, Charla Roberts, Brandarian Thomas, Domienek Reed, Rico Lewis, Antreus Black, Johnny Davis, Tracey Johnson and Cornelius Gill — all of whom she claims received disparate treatment from the Paris Independent School District based on their race.
Currently, Reynerson is in the process of filing an administrative complaint with the Department of Education regarding Wallace’s incident.
“If it went the way they claimed, all they have to do is show the video,” said Cherry, referring to the number of video cameras stationed throughout the high school’s hallways.
Reynerson and Wallace’s mother have viewed one video, which they both insisted had no grounds for Preston and McCarthy’s claim. “There was nothing on the tape that I saw that looked suspicious,” said Reynerson about Wallace’s behavior.
Certain that there seem to be “at least two more videos,” Reynerson submitted a request to Paul Jones, superintendent of the school district, to view additional video footage on March 25. She and Wallace's mom have yet to hear from Jones’s office.
When BET.com reached out to Jones for a statement, his secretary claimed the school was “not at liberty to talk about the situation because it is a student and the parent has not released us to be able to give information out.” Shortly afterwards, she forwarded an email with the following statement from Dennis Eichelbaum, a Dallas attorney who represents the district:
“You are not being provided the whole story or all the evidence. The parents know that PISD is prohibited by federal law from providing you all the information unless the parents give us permission to release the federally protected information […] The parents have elected to not utilize the district's grievance process to seek an expedited amicable resolution.”
“That’s what they did with Shaquanda [Cotton] until a whole bunch of news outlets contacted them — then they started speaking,” said Cherry. “There are privacy laws, but they can speak to someone.” Even Wallace said during a recent phone interview that his mother would “talk to anybody about it.”
Despite Cherry’s online petition and the nationwide coverage of Cotton, no mention of any of the above mentioned Paris High students or their controversies has appeared in the website archives of the town’s primary newspaper, The Paris News.
Nor is there mention of the Department of Education’s 2003 review (one of the few reviews conducted nationally in the past decade) of Paris’s Crockett Middle School, following ongoing complaints from Black parents. A 2005 report on the school found that a “significant statistical disparity” in the punishment of Black children. The district continues to face ongoing investigations by the civil rights division.
"If we want it known, we have to find some kind of outside news to do it and that's hard to do usually," she said. “We can’t even get anything in the [local] news.”
Not wanting Wallace’s story to get “swept under the rug,” Cherry launched the petition shortly after the incident. And while Cherry has worked with several local African-American families on bringing attention to their cases, including Cotton’s, the civil rights activist had only been expecting 500 signatures, at most.
“I’m glad, but I’m surprised.”
Wallace also expressed shock at the outpouring of support from tens and thousands of strangers worldwide: “It feels good to me. I really didn’t think it would be that many people really.”
With all that he has experienced over the past several weeks, the teenager seemed to be in good spirits. After a brief conversation sprinkled with soft, Southern-tinged “Yes, Ma’ams” and “No, Ma’ams,” Wallace revealed what he considers to be the ideal ending to this series of bewildering events.
“All I want to do is go back to school and graduate with my sister and my friends.”
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