Debate In Decatur: Love him or loathe him, the Reverend Jesse Jackson has been remarkably successful as a free-lance diplomat. Last spring, he talked Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic into releasing three captured American servicemen. In 1990, he persuaded Saddam Hussein to release 700 foreign women and children that the Iraqi dictator had threatened to use as human shields. So why did the civil rights leader fail when he tried to get six Decatur, Illinois, high school students—all African American—reinstated after their expulsion for going on a rampage after a football game last September? "The answer," writes Alan Wolfe, in the New Republic's December 6 "TRB" column (www.tnr.com/magazines/tnr/120699/trb120699. html), "is that, in Decatur, Jackson has come up against something rather incorrigible: the peculiarly American reverence for due process." Wolfe surmises school officials in Decatur believe that to reverse the expulsions "would constitute serious interference with the way democracy ought to work." Negotiating with dictators who don't hold fast to such ideals may be easier for Jackson, he writes.
In the same issue, reporter Michelle Cottle travels to Decatur and finds a faded blue- collar city where racial tensions have simmered for some time. Many whites have moved to the suburbs, leaving a school system that is 44 percent African American, with 60 to 65 percent of the students receiving free lunches. In "Itching for a Fight," Cottle notes that, from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, "gangs and drugs had the town—and the schools—by the throat."
Long before the football riot, she writes, "residents without the means to move their kids out of local schools felt they were under siege—a fact that was hardly lost on the school board....Consciously or not, the board may have felt impelled to sacrifice these young men—some of whom already had a reputation as punks—in an effort to prevent wealthier families from pulling their kids out of the district. A group of young black men accused of ganglike activity offered the perfect opportunity to make a statement."
The events in Decatur have led to a widespread debate over the fairness of "zero-tolerance" policies for school violence. "The so-called zero-tolerance policy is without mercy and without sensitivity," Jackson intoned in Illinois. But, say the editors of the New Republic in an editorial that rounds out the issue's look at school discipline, such policies have a liberal pedigree: They were championed by the late Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. And despite studies showing that the get-tough approach makes schools safer, some critics worry about the students who get expelled or suspended. In particular, they believe zero-tolerance laws are racist. "To be sure," the editors write, "when a particular school singles out blacks and coddles whites, school boards should conduct a careful review. But, in most cases, the racial disparity in expulsions is smaller than the racial disparity in arrests for violent crimes." Old-fashioned liberals like Jackson, the magazine editors argue, just don't get it: "Liberals, by and large, no longer assume that compassion means light sentences for criminals or allowing the able-bodied to claim government money absent a day's work. As Decatur shows, however, the battle is not completely won. Permissive liberalism, like all dying creeds, has its last bastion. How unfortunate that it is the American school."
Vol. 11, Issue 5, Page 17Published in Print: February 1, 2000, as Clippings