U.S. Judge Upholds Expulsions in Decatur

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A federal judge last week squelched the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's attempt to win reinstatement for six black high school students expelled after a well-publicized brawl at a football game in Decatur, Ill.

U.S. District Judge Michael McCuskey ruled that courts have little business interfering with local school decisions on student conduct. He also ruled that the students had shown no evidence that school officials discriminated against them based on race.

The judge gave no opinion in his Jan. 11 ruling on the Decatur school board's original punishment: two years' expulsion without alternative school.

The board later reduced the expulsions to one year, and allowed the students to enroll in county-run alternative programs after meeting with Mr. Jackson and Illinois Gov. George Ryan.

Mr. Jackson contends that so-called zero-tolerance disciplinary policies are discriminatory because a disproportionate number of students expelled under such policies are black. "The judge's conclusion was harsh, with radical disregard to the future of the children," Mr. Jackson said at a news conference in Chicago the day of the ruling. His Chicago-based Rainbow/PUSH Coalition plans to appeal.

In court, a lawyer for Rainbow/PUSH showed statistics indicating that a large majority of students who had been expelled from Decatur schools in recent years are African-American.

No Discrimination Found

Judge McCuskey held that statistics and anecdotal evidence alone do not prove racial discrimination. He defended the school board's right to punish, writing that a videotape showed a "violent" fight that injured several people and sent hundreds fleeing.

Decatur Superintendent Kenneth Arndt told Education Week in November that the school board's original punishment was too strong, but was aimed at curbing gang violence in the industrial city of 84,000. ("After Jackson's Arrest, Both Sides in Decatur File Suits," Nov. 17, 1999.)

"They wanted the two years to show the seriousness of it," Mr. Arndt said.

The Sept. 17 fight occurred at the first night game in several years between cross- town rival high schools. Games had been previously held in the afternoon because officials feared violence, but the school board had returned to night games in the hope that more parents would attend.

Then came the fight—captured on videotape and later broadcast to the world.

Aides to Mr. Jackson said he was pushing to get the students back in regular school in part because two of them could receive athletic scholarships and need only a few credits to graduate.

The controversy reached its height just before Thanksgiving, when Mr. Jackson led several emotional rallies, then crossed onto the grounds of Eisenhower High School, where city police arrested him and three supporters.

Other lawsuits filed by both sides were pending last week, including a suit accusing school officials of improperly releasing student records to the news media. Mr. Jackson and the three others arrested in the schoolyard face reduced charges, and the young men still face charges related to the fight.

Vol. 19, Issue 19, Page 3

Published in Print: January 19, 2000, as U.S. Judge Upholds Expulsions in Decatur
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