The arrest of two women teachers on charges of having sex with their male students has brought cries of lingering racism in one of South Carolina's most conservative counties and evoked some of the U.S. South's oldest and deepest-seated racial taboos.
Both women are white. The boys - six in all - are black.
Some of the blacks population who make up more than a quarter of Laurens County's 70,000 residents are upset over the handling of the two cases, particularly the release of the teachers on bail.
They say the cases reflect the way crimes by whites against blacks in the segregated South were treated less seriously than other offenses, and blacks who leveled accusations against whites were less likely to be believed.
"If this had been black teachers, they would not be out of jail right now," said Corinnie Young, a 49-year-old bookstore employee who is black.
Some blacks shudder to think what would have happened if the teachers were black men and the students were white girls.
"I can assure you if it were an African American male who committed such an offense against a white female, history shows us that the charges, the punishment and the sentencing would be totally different," said state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president Lonnie Randolph. "The system ain't blind when the perpetrator is an African American male or female or when the victim is a white female."
Jerry Peace, the county prosecutor and a white man, said that the teachers are wearing electronic tracking devices and that their release on bail - $125,000 (EUR93,700) for one, $110,000 (EUR82,400) for the other - was based not on race, but on the danger to the community and the likelihood that the defendants might flee.
In any case, it would be unusual for someone accused of such a crime to be held without bail. Deborah Ahrens, a visiting professor of criminal law at the University of South Carolina, said of the bail amounts for the two teachers: "For the clients that I've represented in the past that were up for similar offenses, that sounds about right."
Signs of racial tension, old and new, are not hard to find in Laurens County. The school where one of the teachers worked used to be blacks-only. In the town of Laurens, where one of the teachers taught, an old movie theater has been converted into a Ku Klux Klan museum and paraphernalia store called The Redneck Shop. There, visitors can buy Confederate flags - reminders of the Southern slave-holding states that seceded from the United States in 1861, sparking the Civil War - and bumper stickers, such as one that depicts three Klansmen and reads "The Original Boys in the Hood."
Textile mills were once the chief source of jobs in the working-class area about 60 miles (100 kilometers) northwest of the state capital of Columbia, but the industry went into decline in the 1990s. The main employers now include a maker of plastic coolers and Presbyterian College in Clinton. As of 2003, nearly 15 percent of county residents lived below the poverty line.
And as in many communities, most neighborhoods in the county are either black or white. People of different races find themselves side by side in one of two places: work or school.
Wendie Schweikert, a 37-year-old married woman who had been teaching elementary school in Laurens for more than a decade, was arrested last year after the mother of an 11-year-old boy accused her of having sex with the boy at school at least twice. Authorities said they found evidence bearing his DNA in her classroom. She is also accused of having sex with him in her car near a miniature golf course and arcade in Greenville, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) away.
Allenna Ward, a 24-year-old minister's daughter in her second year of teaching, was fired Feb. 28 after she was charged with having sex with at least five boys. Some of the alleged victims, 14 and 15 years old, were students at the middle school in Clinton where Ward taught. Police say Ward, who is married, had sex with the boys at the school, at a motel, in a park and behind a restaurant.
Attempts to contact the women in person and by telephone were unsuccessful, and their lawyers did not return repeated calls.
Black and white residents alike said they are shocked by the accusations. Many echoed the sentiments of Peggy Hawkins, a 50-year-old white resident. "Boys are boys and she done wrong," Hawkins said of one of the teachers.
The Rev. David Kennedy, a local black activist, is among those who see racism at work. He said the white teachers accused of preying on black students figured "they can do what they want to do with them and they know the consequences won't be great."
He suggested that blacks in town are too afraid to speak out: "There's a long history of intimidation and it's a sin. It's unholy in Laurens County to speak out."
Parents whose children go to E.B Morse Elementary School, where Schweikert taught, say they have trouble reconciling the accusations with the woman they knew.
"She was very involved," said Shea Mills, whose son attended the school. "I remember she would make kids pick paper up in the halls."
Bell Street Middle School Principal Maureen Tiller said Ward did well during an evaluation of her skills, and "personality-wise she seemed to be fine."
Nicole Sullivan, whose daughter went to Schweikert's school, said that when the case broke, students brought home notes saying the teacher had resigned. The notes did not explain why.
"I don't want to say it was a racial thing, but if it were a white victim and a black teacher, I think things would have been handled differently," said Sullivan, who is black.
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