Published Online: September 28, 2007
Published in Print: October 3, 2007, as ‘Jena Six’: Case Study in Racial Tensions

‘Jena Six’: Case Study in Racial Tensions

On Aug. 31, 2006, school leaders in Jena, La., arrived to find two nooses hanging from an oak tree on the campus of Jena High School—and boarded a racially charged roller coaster that has yet to stop moving.

The events since that incident—including the beating of a white student and resulting criminal charges against six black schoolmates that have drawn international attention—offer tough lessons for principals and other administrators who must grapple with racial tensions in their schools.

For one, principals and teachers can head off such incidents by knowing the sources of conflict and acting to defuse them, experts on race relations say.

But when prevention fails, for whatever reason, school leaders should treat such matters seriously, condemn any offensive act, and mete out fair punishment. Communication with students, parents, and the community is crucial to keep the situation from worsening, and administrators may need to draw on outside mediators for help.

Year of Tensions In Jena, La.

Aug. 30, 2006: A black student at a Jena High School assembly asks if he is allowed to sit under a tree on campus that is a frequent gathering place for white students. He is told that he is.

Aug. 31: Students find two nooses hanging from the tree; within days, Jena High School Principal Scott Windham recommends that three white students responsible for hanging the nooses be expelled.

Sept. 6: A school assembly to address the issue includes District Attorney Reed Walters of LaSalle Parish. Mr. Walters speaks to the students and reportedly tells them that on-campus confrontations are unacceptable and that he could “change your lives with the stroke of a pen.”

Sept. 7: An all-white, four-person committee of school staff reviewing the principal’s recommendation of expulsion calls for suspension instead, and LaSalle Parish Superintendent Roy Breithaupt agrees. The three white youths are sent to an alternative school for nine days, and later serve a two-week, in-school suspension.

Federal authorities, including FBI agents and officials from the U.S. Department of Justice civil rights division, visit Jena High School to investigate the noose incident.

“Educators have a tremendous responsibility to not only know what the academic needs of their students are, but to know what the social climate is in their school, because those are not unrelated,” said Beverly Daniel Tatum, the president of Spelman College, a historically black institution in Atlanta, and the author of books on race in schools. “It seems to me that school leaders in Jena lost several opportunities to address these incidents before things became physically violent.”

The events in Jena offer a near-textbook example of potential pitfalls for school administrators.

A day before the nooses were found, a black student, in a schoolwide assembly, had asked whether he could sit under a tree known as a gathering place for white students—an indication, in the view of some outside observers, of underlying racial friction at the 521-student school. Although no exact racial breakdown was available for the school’s enrollment, it mirrors that of the district, which is about 85 percent white.

After the nooses were found, the principal, who is white, quickly identified the three white students responsible and recommended expulsion. But the four members of an all-white discipline-review panel and the superintendent of the 2,700-student LaSalle Parish school district, who also is white, decided suspension was a more fitting punishment.

That decision, scholars and education leaders say, may have played a role in an escalating series of confrontations between white and black youths in Jena later that fall, which peaked last December when six black teenagers were accused of beating a white male schoolmate until he was bloodied and unconscious.

The black teens, known now as the “Jena Six,” were charged with attempted second-degree murder—charges that have since been reduced. Five of the cases have yet to go to trial; one student who was first tried as an adult had his convictions for aggravated battery and conspiracy overturned. He was released from jail on Sept. 27 but was expected to appear for a hearing in juvenile court this week.

The series of events provoked accusations of racism and uneven treatment of black and white students and thrust the predominantly white town of 3,000 into the spotlight, culminating in a demonstration last month in support of the six youths by tens of thousands of protesters from around the country.

Missed Signals

That a black student asked Jena High leaders if he could sit beneath the “white” tree should have been a major warning sign, scholars of racial issues say.

“It indicates there are racial divisions that leaders should have already been addressing,” said Rosemary Henze, a linguistics professor at San Jose State University who co-wrote a book on how leaders can cultivate healthy race relations in schools. School officials “gave the right answer, that the boy could sit anywhere, but that’s not enough,” she said last week. “Principals have to send a strong message to the entire school that segregation will not be tolerated.”

But the reaction of residents in Jena illustrates just how difficult it can be to interpret such warning signs.

LaSalle Parish Superintendent of Schools Roy Breithaupt did not respond to Education Week’s request for an interview, but in May he told the Chicago Tribune that he believed the incident to be a prank.

Billy Wayne Fowler, a member of the LaSalle Parish school board since January, said that white and black students at Jena High generally got along, including the three white teenagers who hung the nooses. He said he has heard that the morning of the incident, both black and white students were seen sticking their heads through the ropes.

“That sheds a different light on this,” said Mr. Fowler, who is white. “You can’t overlook the seriousness of hanging the nooses, but I don’t think our young people understood the significance of that symbol” as a graphic reminder of the long history of lynchings of black Americans.

Cleveland Riser Jr., a retired administrator who worked 29 years in the LaSalle Parish schools as a coach, principal, and assistant superintendent, said that while students may have thought the nooses were a joke, adults shouldn’t have been so dismissive.

“When the superintendent overruled the principal on expulsion, he sent a message that it wasn’t that big of a deal to hang such a hateful symbol of racism and terror in a tree at school,” said Mr. Riser, who is black. “That was the first big breakdown in this whole mess.”

Black parents and students also were outraged that the white youths were not punished more harshly, and that no hate-crime charges were brought against them.

Although it has been widely reported that the three white students served a three-day suspension, Mr. Breithaupt told the Associated Press late last week that they spent nine days in an alternative school and then served two weeks of in-school suspension when they returned to Jena High School.

School leaders never contacted local law-enforcement authorities about the nooses, but several Jena citizens called the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said Donald W. Washington, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana. Within a few days, federal authorities came to investigate.

The federal authorities decided they could not prosecute the teenagers for hate crimes, Mr. Washington said. For one thing, federal investigators found that the three had acted without the involvement of adults, organizations, or hate groups. They also were all under 18, and juveniles are rarely, if ever, prosecuted in federal courts, Mr. Washington said. And the school already had administered discipline to them, as controversial as it was.

“In this case, none of the three boys had any criminal history or even school disciplinary history, so trying to certify them as adults in federal court would have been doomed to fail,” Mr. Washington, who is African-American, said in an interview last week.

Reed Walters, the district attorney for LaSalle Parish, who is white, also has said that hanging nooses is not a crime in Louisiana, and that there was no criminal statute under which to prosecute the three white students.

Response in N.C.

While the details of any particular racially charged incident may be murky, experts agree that school officials should communicate clearly to students, parents, and local leaders that such actions will not be tolerated.

Terry B. Grier, the superintendent of the 71,000-student Guilford County school district in North Carolina, said that was his first response late last month when four nooses were found on trees and a flagpole at T.W. Andrews High School, in High Point, N.C., soon after the rally in Jena.

“I immediately said, both publicly and in a message that went to our parents, that it was a despicable, deplorable act and that it has no place in our schools, in our district, or in our community,” Mr. Grier said last week. School leaders there also called local law-enforcement officials to investigate the incident. No suspects had been arrested as of press time, but Mr. Grier said that, so far, there had been no evidence that students at the majority-black high school were involved.

Mr. Washington, the federal prosecutor in Louisiana, agreed with that approach.

Help in Preventing Racial Incidents—And in Responding

RESOURCES

EdChange: A team of educators that provides resources, workshops, and consulting services on equity, diversity, multiculturalism, and social justice. Based in St. Paul, Minn. www.edchange.org

National Coalition for Equity in Education: A coalition of educators that aims to transform schools to provide racial equity. Provides publications and consultation on equity. Based at the University of California, Santa Barbara. http://ncee.education.ucsb.edu/

National School Boards Association: The Council of Urban Boards of Education, a subgroup of the Alexandria, Va.-based NSBA produced a CD, “Renewing the Promise,” and a discussion guide about diversity in education for the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. The accompanying guide includes questions for district officials to consider on how to improve equity. Request the CD and guide by email, cube@nsba.org, or call Krista Freer at (703) 838-6705.

Southern Poverty Law Center: The Montgomery, Ala.-based center’s Web project “Fight Hate and Promote Tolerance” has classroom materials for teaching tolerance. www.tolerance.org

U.S. Department of Justice: The federal agency’s communityrelations service provides staff members to work with schools on conflict resolution after a racial incident. It has published several brochures about conflict resolution at schools. www.usdoj.gov/crs/publist.html.

BOOKS

Leading for Diversity: How School Leaders Promote Positive Interethnic Relations, by Rosemary C. Henze, Edmundo Norte, Susan E. Sather, Ernest Walker, and Anne Katz, Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence, 2001.

“Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity, by Beverly Daniel Tatum, Basic Books, 1997. Also see her book “Can We Talk About Race?”: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation, Beacon Press, 2007.

“With the benefit of complete, total, and perfect hindsight, if I were a school official in that situation, I would treat something like nooses with the utmost priority, and I would call it what it is,” he said. “It’s a horrific act that should not occur on a school campus, and for those who commit it, they should be excluded.”

If, as happened in Jena, a school-based incident flares into later conflicts on and off campus, school leaders and teachers may be able to defuse tensions through dialogue involving students, parents, and community members.

“The solutions and resources, for the most part, reside in the community,” said Daryl Borgquist, a media-affairs officer for the community-relations service of the U.S. Department of Justice, which has provided help to a number of schools after racial incidents.

The community-relations service takes a conflict-resolution approach and typically organizes a program in which students from a cross section of the school are selected to talk in groups. The students make recommendations for how the school district could improve the school climate between students of different races.

But Paul C. Gorski, an assistant professor of education at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., who has been a consultant for schools grappling with racial tensions, said he is wary of a conflict-resolution approach if it doesn’t enable people to talk about racism in “deep and complex ways.”

He said that getting to the root of racial friction means “bringing people together in a dialogue so that people’s experiences can be shared—so that people can develop a deeper understanding of how racism is systemic.”

Drawing Lessons

In Jena, where residents have barely had time to let things settle since the massive protest Sept. 20, it remains unclear what lessons will be drawn.

“I think this kind of racist behavior had been dormant here for a while, but it boiled over and blew up,” Mr. Riser, the retired administrator, said of the nooses. “It’s clear that our school and community leaders have got a lot of work to do.”

Mr. Fowler, the school board member, said school officials must deal with racial incidents in a more upfront manner.

“There’s no blueprint for this,” he said. “But we can’t put our heads in the sand.”

Two weeks ago, as Jena officials prepared for the mass rally, Paul G. Pastorek, the state schools chief in Louisiana, called the LaSalle Parish school board and offered to send a member of his senior staff to conduct diversity training for employees of the school district.

“They said they thought they had it handled,” said Cheryl Michelet, a spokeswoman for Mr. Pastorek. “But they said they would reach out if they decided they needed the help.”

PHOTO: U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., reaches to shake hands in Washington last week with Melissa Bell, the mother of Mychal Bell, one of six black Jena, La., teenagers accused of beating a white schoolmate. Charges of racial bias in the case have drawn wide attention.
—Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
PHOTO: The tree at Jena High School where nooses were found in August 2006 has been taken down. The incident was followed by months of racial friction in the small Louisiana town.
—Chris Graythen/Getty Images
PHOTO: Cleveland Riser Jr. is a former assistant superintendent of schools in LaSalle Parish.
—Alex Brandon/AP
PHOTO: Mychal Bell is released on $45,000 bail after the prosecutor drops an attempt to try him as an adult. The 17-year-old faces prosecution in juvenile court and was due for a hearing next week.
—Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Vol. 27, Issue 06, Pages 1,18-19

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