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Published in Print: November 24, 1999, as After Jackson's Arrest, Both Sides in Decatur File Suits

After Jackson's Arrest, Both Sides in Decatur File Suits

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The standoff between protesters allied with the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and school officials in Decatur, Ill., over the expulsions of seven students escalated last week with the televised arrest of the civil rights leader, dueling lawsuits, and further demonstrations.

By week's end, both sides remained at odds, with the school board declaring that its decision was final and that the reductions of the students' expulsions from two years to one would stand without further adjustments.

Two lawsuits filed by supporters of the students last week sought to return the students to their schools and challenged the release of discipline records on the expelled students as a violation of their privacy. The district then went to court seeking to bar Mr. Jackson and his supporters from school grounds.

The protests by Mr. Jackson and his Chicago-based advocacy group, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, over the stiff penalties given students involved in a brawl at a Sept. 17 football game have thrust this working-class city of 84,000 into the national spotlight and sparked a wider debate over "zero tolerance" discipline policies and the handling of unruly students.

It has also split Decatur residents along racial lines and left many people here wishing the media mobs and television satellite trucks would just go away.

Orchestrated Arrest

The week before, it looked as if that might happen, after the school board agreed to shorten the length of the expulsions from two years to one, and state officials agreed to help provide alternative schooling for the expelled students. ("Decatur, Ill., Embroiled In Expulsions Dispute," Nov. 17, 1999.)

But Mr. Jackson returned to the city on Nov. 14 for a protest march, repeating his earlier claims that the students were still being treated unfairly and demanding further reductions in their punishment.

The students were arrested on preliminary charges of felony mob action, battery, and disorderly conduct.

On Nov. 16, Mr. Jackson gathered with several of the expelled students, their supporters and relatives, and a horde of journalists on the sidewalk outside Eisenhower High School, where some of the expelled students were enrolled.

"We shall now go forward," he said as, with television cameras rolling, he and several supporters stepped on to the lawn of the school shortly after 1 p.m.

Two officers handcuffed Mr. Jackson and, in the midst of a jostling crowd of protesters and journalists, he and three others were taken off to jail, where they spent several hours. They faced preliminary charges of felony mob action, among other offenses. Police are continuing their investigation.

Later that evening, Mr. Jackson appeared at a church rally where he vowed to continue the protest. "We do not want a deal," he said to cheers. "We want an even playing field.

"Mr. Jackson has argued that the punishment given the seven students, all of whom are African-American, is far worse than that handed out recently to white students for such offenses as bomb threats or bringing knives to school.

While Mr. Jackson was getting out of jail, the Decatur school boardmade up of six white members and one African-American—gathered for its first meeting since the protests began.

After a two-hour closed session, the board members emerged, and the chairwoman, Jackie Goetter, read a simple, direct statement to a packed board room that reaffirmed the one-year expulsions and offered no further reductions.

"If the students or their parents feel the punishment was wrong or wish to challenge its severity," Ms. Goetter said, "they should seek relief in the courtroom."

On Nov. 18, two days after Mr. Jackson's arrest, six of the students enrolled in county-run alternative school programs. The seventh has since moved out of state.

Before Mr. Jackson returned home to Chicago last Thursday, his organization filed the lawsuits seeking to return the students to school and challenging the district's alleged release of student records.

That suit, which seeks $5 million in damages for each student, accuses school officials of showing transcripts and other records to the public.

Decatur Superintendent Kenneth Arndt said all he did was tell ministers and reporters the total number of school absences the seven students had had since they were in 9th grade: 350.

'Very Negative'

The school board meeting Nov. 16 drew protesters on both sides.

A group of teachers outside the meeting agreed that their city had been unfairly portrayed.

"I don't think the media has been representing both sides fairly," said Judy Rooney, an English teacher at Stephen Decatur High School, which was not involved in the brawl at the football game. "The impression of Decatur has been very negative."

Ms. Rooney said she was jolted into action when she heard Mr. Jackson complain on TV that more than nine out of 10 teachers in Decatur were white while nearly half the students were black. "That made me so mad," said Ms. Rooney, who is white. "I care about kids because they are my kids, and I don't care what color they are."

The Rev. Marshall Hatch of Chicago stood and watched the protest by Ms. Rooney and other teachers, saying he was dumbfounded by it. "As a pastor, my interest is always in how to redeem young people, even as they go astray," said Mr. Hatch, who is African-American. "That that's not a part of the conversation is deeply troubling."

The 11,200-student district's superintendent, Mr. Arndt, said in an interview last week that he has never felt such intense scrutiny and pressure.

Defensive of the school board's motives, Mr. Arndt, who is white, does admit some missteps, notably the initial two-year expulsions without provisions for alternative schooling. But he defended the board's compromise, which reduced the expulsions to one year and allowed the students to obtain alternative schooling.

Sending a Message

And he said there was a reason for the unusually stiff penalties. For years, he said, the district had been starting athletic events early—at 5:30 p.m. rather than 7:30 p.m.—as a result of past gang-related violence.

The Sept. 17 game at Eisenhower High was the first under a return to a later-evening schedule, and when it erupted in violence, school board members wanted to send a strong message, Mr. Arndt said.

When local black ministers came to school board meetings in protest, board members had offered to re-examine the cases after the school year. That wasn't enough for ministers such as the Rev. Thomas Walker, a friend to some of the students. "If I allow this policy to pass, my son's got to deal with the same thing," Mr. Walker said.

Mr. Arndt said he wished the district could do more to help troubled and at-risk students. "We know we have problems," he said. "We're not meeting the needs of kids."He added, however, that there was no extra money to pay for new programs. "We are truly going broke, and the community doesn't understand," he said.

Mr. Arndt said he respected Mr. Jackson, but added that "I think this was the wrong case" for the civil rights leader to make into a crusade.Valerie Johnson, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Mr. Jackson's top education adviser, disagrees.

"I think the problem is, there's a cultural gap," she said in an interview, pointing to numbers that show 93 percent of Decatur's teachers are white.

"The larger issue is what we're doing with our kids," she said. Too many students, she said, are kicked out of school, and many are sent to alternative schools that sometimes are "throwaway programs." As for why Mr. Jackson chose Decatur as the venue for focusing attention on schools' handling of student discipline, Ms. Johnson replied, "Timing is everything."

Vol. 19, Issue 13, Page 13

Web Resources
  • Eisenhower High School has posted a page devoted to the expulsions.
  • Read the statement of the Reverend Jesse Jackson on expelled students at the Decatur Public Schools, from the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.
  • Read about Decatur's Board of Education, including a list of board members.
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