CLINTON, S.C. - 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 South's oldest and deepest-seated racial taboos.
Both women are white. The boys - six in all - are black.
Some of the blacks 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 NAACP 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 the teachers are wearing electronic tracking devices, and their release on bail - $125,000 for one, $110,000 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."
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 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 Ms. Ward taught.