The national media spotlight descended last week on the Decatur, Ill., schools, as educators there scrambled to defend what critics, including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, characterized as unduly harsh penalties meted out to students involved in a brawl at a high school football game.
‘I feel like I’ve just lived through Columbine.’
Decatur’s school board had voted last month to enforce the district’s “zero tolerance” policy against school violence and expel for up to two years seven students who were involved in the Sept. 17 melee.
The fight, which lasted about 10 minutes, cleared the bleachers during a game between the district’s Eisenhower and MacArthur high schools and stopped play for a short time. The controversy that unfolded in its aftermath, however, has simmered for much longer, making national headlines and renewing questions about the wisdom of zero-tolerance policies.
Exhausted district officials said last week they were unprepared for—and stung by—what they described as a media circus.
“I feel like I’ve just lived through Columbine,” an emotional and drained Kenneth Arndt, the superintendent of the 11,000-student district, said in a reference to the exhaustively covered shooting incident at a Colorado high school last spring.
To quell rising tensions last week, officials closed all three of the district’s high schools on Nov. 8 and 9. Schools reopened Nov. 10, but a heavy police presence and a large number of absentees created a less-than- welcoming setting for teachers and students, Mr. Arndt said in a telephone interview.
At week’s end, negotiations involving Mr. Arndt, the school board, Mr. Jackson, Illinois Gov. George H. Ryan, and state Superintendent Glenn W. McGee, seemed close to yielding a compromise. Earlier in the week, the school board agreed to shorten the expulsions from two years to one, and the Republican governor bent state rules to allow the students to attend an alternative school.
The Decatur school board is slated to meet with state officials on the matter this week, when they’re hoping to reach a permanent resolution.
The media attention and high-pressure negotiations had frazzled nerves throughout the district, Mr. Arndt said. “I just want things to go back to normal and get on with the business of educating kids,” he said.
Fistfight or ‘Mob Action’?
The problems arose in the predominantly working-class city, located midway between Chicago and St. Louis, almost immediately after the votes last month to expel the seven students.
School officials have said all along that the expulsions were justified and that the financially strapped district could not afford the cost of alternative schooling for the students.
But critics, many of them from outside Decatur and even far from Illinois, had argued that the punishments were not proportionate to the offenses, especially because no weapons were involved and no serious injuries resulted.
At a Nov. 2 news conference, the school board president, Jacqueline Goetter, characterized the incident as “gang-like, mob-action activity” that threatened the safety of hundreds of the game’s attendees. She asked why Mr. Jackson would try “to tell this local school board how to run our schools.’’
“This was no small schoolyard brawl,” Superintendent Arndt said last week. “Would this be a big deal in Chicago? Probably not, but it’s a big deal in Decatur. This is our community, and we don’t tolerate this kind of violence.”
But Mr. Jackson, who became involved when the school board ignored a request by the local chapter of his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition to soften the punishment, characterized the incident as a simple fistfight gone awry that did not merit expulsion. He led a march through Decatur Nov. 7 that drew more than 1,000 protesters.
But even as the dispute appeared to be winding down late last week, school safety experts said the debate raised important questions about how school officials can best balance safety concerns with educational needs.
“If we [set up such] policies to be too harsh—with one strike and you’re out—then we’re going to have some big problems,” said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.
A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 1999 edition of Education Week as Decatur, Ill., Embroiled In Expulsions Dispute