by Salim Muwakkil
Whenmembers of the Decatur chapter of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition asked the Rev. Jesse Jackson to help them deal with a controversy at a local high school, it seemed like just another of the many brushfires he is summoned to help extinguish. After all, it appeared to be an easy enough issue: Seven African-American students at a local high school were expelled for two years for brawling at a football game last September. One student subsequently dropped out; since there were no provisions for alternative education, it was highly unlikely the expelled students would return to complete their secondary education. In effect, they were permanently kicked out of school for a fistfight.
Local leaders thought the punishment was wildly disproportionate, but for nearly two months their protests fell on deaf ears at the Decatur School Board. The city's black leaders were sure the board would quickly rescind the draconian punishment it had imposed once they were caught in the glare of the public spotlight that followed Jackson. Indeed, the initial stages of Jackson's efforts seemed to bear fruit.
Illinois Gov. George Ryan, just back from a controversial trip to Cuba, traveled to Decatur on Nov. 8 and helped broker an agreement that reduced the expulsions from two years to one year and allowed the teens to attend a school for troubled youth. But Jackson rejected those penalties as excessive, and his intervention has turned the issue into a national controversy.
Jackson is being roundly condemned for misapplying tactics from his civil rights past to the complex issue of post-Columbine school violence. And since the media have portrayed the Decatur protest as Jackson's crusade, the stand-off has acquired dimensions of pride and stature. The School Board cannot appear to cave in, and the combative reverend also has dug in his heels. The issue has moved into the courts and has yet to be resolved.
Jackson clearly denounced the fight that prompted the punishments, but he condemned the School Board for committing the greater crime. Sentencing the students to days of unproductive time and futures without education would increase their chances of joining record numbers of their peers in a criminal justice system with a ravenous appetite for black youth. "The board's action was an educational death sentence for these students," Jackson said. "If there's hell in them, then let's educate the hell out of them. We must not see the jail system as the back-up of our school system."
The harsh penalties were meted out as part of Decatur's "zero tolerance" policy. This kind of policy -- mandatory minimum punishment uniformly enforced -- has caught on like wildfire in the wake of a series of recent school shootings. Jackson's mediation brought attention to the crude uniformity and disparate racial effects of these policies. "This isn't about black and white," Jackson has insisted. "It's about wrong and right."
There are clear racial effects in the school district's patterns of punishment. Of 1,700 students suspended last year, 1,038 were African-American in a district that is about 40 percent black. Of six students expelled last year, five were black.
Illinois School Superintendent Glenn McGee also visited Decatur, and although he proposed solutions that were in direct accord with Jackson's, few media accounts note their agreement. Both said that the six students should not face identical punishments, since they all had varying degrees of involvement in the brawl, and that they should be allowed back into their regular high schools if they maintain at least a C average and good attendance in the alternative program.
The day after the School Board rejected this option, the Macon County state's attorney filed criminal charges against the students. These charges came nearly two months after the brawl and were clearly intended to intimidate the youths' supporters.
Jackson mobilized a Nov. 14 march that attracted at least 5,000 demonstrators; on Nov. 16, he was arrested for attempting to enter school property and charged with felony mob action and two misdemeanors. He has been excoriated in the local and national media for interfering in local concerns and for acting out of a sense of racial allegiance. In one typical mainstream editorial, the Chicago Sun-Times fumed that Jackson's demonstration had "none of the honor of the civil rights movement and all of the shame of a fight."
But, as usual, Jackson is on to something. These school policies are akin to absolutist policies like New York's "broken windows" style of law enforcement, where no offense is too petty to be prosecuted. These policies implement punishment that explicitly excludes mercy. There are no opportunities for judicial discretion or mitigation.
Born of cultural anxiety about youth crime, the concept rationalizes a dynamic that tracks undereducated black youth into a criminal justice system where many are tried as adults and subjected to mandatory minimum sentences. This web of biased presumptions severely limits the horizons of black youth. Jackson is right to be on the case.
December 19, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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