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WEB POSTED 11-23-1999

Fighting inequality in the law
Rev. Jackson leads protest to focus on 'zero tolerance on injustices'

DECATUR, Ill.�Injustice abounds in the case of seven young Black men expelled from high school for a fist fight during a football game, activists say, and the case has brought to national attention the zero-tolerance policies that are increasingly being used in schools across the country.

It is a case that also has brought even further to the forefront the underlying racism that many Black residents here say is exercised throughout the city, but particularly in its school system.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, leading a crowd of several thousand demonstrators on a two-mile walk through the streets of Decatur Nov. 14, denounced the two-year expulsion of the youths without an option of alternative education as a virtual death sentence. And he charged the school board with vindictiveness after the recent release of video footage of the fight.

"Our interest is to get the youth back in school, but we�re willing to go to jail," said Rev. Jackson who brought 19 busloads of demonstrators from St. Louis, Indianapolis, Chicago and other cities. "We will not surrender that which is most basic to us�equal protection under the law. This board cannot put personal pride and local politics over public policy. It could not happen in Selma, it can not happen in Decatur."

[Rev. Jackson was prepared to lead demonstrators into MacArthur school and face arrest if a negotiated settlement was not reached at Final Call presstime.]

Rev. Jackson said that since he has raised the issue of the unfairness of the punishment, the private records of the students have been released by school officials and video footage of the fight has surfaced and appeared on national television in order to tarnish the image of the youths.

"They released that tape to the public to marginalize these youth," he said, warning that charges possibly could be leveled at those who released records of the youths. "If the law says you must offer alternative education before expulsion � that you can�t make records of juveniles public and they make them public, they�re operating outside of the law," he said.

Rev. Jackson further noted: "This case is not about race, it�s about reason. It�s about all of our children. We must not see the jail system as the back-up of our (school) system."

But despite his efforts to keep the issue above race, the line of opinion divided primarily along racial lines. While some whites joined the march through Decatur and even spoke from the platform provided by Rev. Jackson, the demonstrators overwhelmingly were Blacks. On the other hand, a counter rally held at the same hour across town by the Ku Klux Klan to denounce Rev. Jackson�s presence in Decatur drew 150 whites; and a demonstration held by City Councilwoman Betsy Stockard drew 200 demonstrators but only one Black family�her own.

"I know of other African Americans who support this," Ms. Stockard said, contending that she has been somewhat ostracized by the Black community for her support of the school board. "I�m not going to say why they�re not here. But I do know a lot of people who don�t want to stand out publicly."

The racial division also was evident among Decatur residents Blanche Shelton and Judy Jones, sisters-in-law who sat in their car as protestors passed.

"They (police) were afraid that if they did something too quick the reaction (from gang members) would be more violent," said Ms. Jones, who is white.

"I�m fed up with the stereotyping of Black youths as gang members or drug dealers," countered Ms. Shelton, who is Black. "That�s not the issue. Whatever is fair, treat the Black kids the same way."

Diane DiBartolomeo, a white woman standing on the sidelines as marchers passed, put her feelings more bluntly: "It�s a crock of s�," she said of the marchers. "If I�d been fighting, I would have been arrested. The school board shouldn�t back down. Had he (Rev. Jackson) not come, it wouldn�t have boiled down to this."

Black residents emphasize they do not condone the actions of the youths and many whites also say they feel the punishment was too severe. And despite ongoing local and even high-level intervention by Max McGee, superintendent of the Illinois Board of Education, and Gov. George Ryan produced little movement from Decatur School Board President Jacqueline Goetter.

After the intervention of Gov. Ryan, the board cut the expulsion in half and agreed to allow the teens to attend a school for troubled youths.

Rev. Jackson has elicited the support of Congressman Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who told The Final Call he has asked U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to review the expulsion policies and the possibility for criminal charges against those who released private school information on the students. He said he will ask Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the ranking democrat on the Judiciary Committee, to hold a hearing in Chicago on zero tolerance policies.

Zero tolerance "is the beginning of the assembly line that takes our children out of high school and ultimately lands them in prison," he said. "It�s the �kick �em out� attitude that transcends into the three-strikes-you�re-out and lock �em up attitude. And we must stop it."

State Senator Donne Trotter (D-Chicago), the chair of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, said the issue of zero tolerance will be an issue of debate at the state capitol.

The attorney who represents the teens, Lewis Meyers, said the policy of zero tolerance systematically breeds arbitrary decisions. He noted that one of the expelled youths, Gregory Howell, is the victim in the fight.

He also noted that Mr. Howell, a senior three credits shy of graduation, has 17 track scholarship offers. Another student, Roosevelt Fuller, is co-captain of the school basketball team with a 3.5 grade-point average and athletic scholarships. He said neither student has been in trouble before.

Regarding the racial inadequacies of the Decatur schools system, attorney Meyers said that of 1,700 students suspended last year, 1,038 were Black students. He added that although the school district is 40 percent Black, 93 percent of the teachers are white.

The school board has six white members and one Black member.

Atty. Meyers added that Decatur Schools Superintendent Kenneth Arndt told him that 80 percent of those suspended last year did not return to Decatur schools.

"It would be interesting to know where did they go," the attorney said.

Shawn Williams, a 20-year-old white youth who disagreed with the march as he watched from the sidelines, answered part of attorney Meyers� question. Mr. Williams said he was suspended for one year for fighting when he was a senior and never returned to any school.

"As Minister Louis Farrakhan has said, the injustice in the American law is that it is relaxed for some and made harsh for others," said Min. Arif Muhammad, Nation of Islam counsel who has researched zero tolerance policies. [See Min. Farrakhan�s article, "Why we must control the education of our children," on page 20.]

Walter Smith, the executive director of the local Boys and Girls Club and a former president of the Decatur Human Relations Commission, often thinks about the plight of the young men and women he sees coming through his doors. He thinks the punishment of the students was too extreme, but challenged the Black community to fight the bigger problem.

"We as a community have to unite and set an agenda for what it will take to provide an opportunity for our youth to grow and develop as adults," he said. Chiding the Decatur school system for allowing some Black student to stay in school without being educated, Mr. Smith said "young people must be able to utilize their education and find gainful employment, meaning we have to produce jobs."


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