Some lessons learned in Decatur

Posted: Friday, January 14, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's Chicago Tribune:

U.S. District Judge Michael McCuskey ruled wisely Tuesday in upholding the one-year expulsions of five Decatur high school students. Now the Rev. Jesse Jackson should move on and let those boys get down to the serious business of getting an education at the alternative school where they are enrolled.

Jackson has been the driving force behind a lawsuit filed on behalf of the youths, all of whom were involved in a fight at a football game last fall. He was instrumental in getting the Decatur School Board to change its original two-year expulsion to one year and, with an assist from Gov. George Ryan, in getting them into an alternative school.

But the subsequent lawsuit was a misguided attempt to wrest from local school officials the authority to discipline students without the interference of the courts. The suit claimed the boys' civil rights were violated because the expulsions were racially motivated - the boys are black and the school board is majority white - and because under the board's ``zero tolerance'' policy on school violence, they all received the same punishment regardless of their individual involvement in the fight.

The judge said racial bias could not be proved, since there was no way of knowing how white students would have been punished for the same behavior, and found that what the board termed its ``no-tolerance'' policy on violence had no impact on disciplinary cases. Those findings, however, do not render the whole Decatur episode a waste of time.

For one thing, the case spotlighted an unfortunate technicality in Illinois law that prevents expelled students from being admitted to alternative education programs. The governor stepped in in this case, but that's something the legislature needs to fix.

More important still, the case has had the salutary effect of focusing attention on two issues that deserve more scrutiny. The first is the disproportionately high number of black students expelled from public schools nationwide. Though no racial bias was found in Decatur, at least one study indicates that black students are expelled for less-serious offenses than whites. That's an inequity that must be rooted out.

The second issue is the concept of ``zero tolerance,'' which has allowed school administrators to abdicate their responsibilities as well as their common sense in favor of an absurd, one-size-fits-all discipline policy that treats disparate offenses and offenders the same.

Jackson would do well to spur national dialogue in those areas, rather than appealing McCuskey's decision. That would benefit all students, and those five kids in Decatur could concentrate on their studies.



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