The Reverend Jesse Jackson has stepped forward yet again to mediate a situation. This time, it is in a local school district in Illinois. But has he gone too far in his criticism of an excessive punishment by advocating no punishment at all?
In the city of Decatur, seven black students from Eisenhower High School were involved in a September 17 fistfight at a school football game. In keeping with the school district's new "zero tolerance" policy, the seven were expelled from school for two years.
Many of the citizens of Decatur are outraged at the severity of the punishment given to the seven. The local spokesman of Jackson's PUSH/Rainbow Coalition, Julius Bailey, announced a hunger strike to protest the harsh penalties the students were given. Macon County Sheriff Roger Walker called the punishment more severe than any local or state laws. Since then, four of the seven have been charged with inciting a mob action, a felony. Police are also classifying the fight as gang-related.
In late October, Jackson journeyed to Decatur. He characterized the brawl as a "schoolyard fight" and "something silly like children do." He requested the opportunity to speak with the school board. But, after Jackson announced a march in Decatur to protest the suspensions, Decatur schools superintendent Kenneth Arndt and school board president Jackie Goetter insisted the suspensions would stand. School Human Relations Director Gary Hunt described the September 17 brawl as "mob action, pure, plain and simple."
Decatur City Councilwoman Betsy Stockard, who originally asked the school to reconsider the expulsions, changed her opinion after viewing a videotape of the melee and urged people not to march with Jackson.
Jackson said the marchers would escort the students to school, and should be prepared to be arrested. Councilwoman Stockard and Mayor Terry Howley asked Decatur residents to obey the law and not attempt to bring the students onto school property. In the end, all three Decatur public high schools were closed on November 8 and 9.
Illinois Governor George Ryan went to Decatur as well to speak with both sides in the dispute in an attempt to try to get clearer heads to prevail. The school board offered to cut the punishment to one year expulsion. Ryan's further compromise, which would waive existing state laws, would allow the suspended students to attend an alternative school. Jackson, however, turned down these offers.
A "zero tolerance" school policy, while inherently unfair, is unfortunately needed right now in our society to combat the level of increasing violence in places where our children are supposed to be safe.
Jackson needs to take a look at the birds that are coming home to roost. His presence is doing more than exacerbating an already volatile situation. While the punishments are too severe for the infractions involved, the students must take some responsibility for their actions. They must serve some form of punishment and make whatever restitution that is deemed fair.
The offer of an alternative school education for at least six months is more than fair, especially in light of other individuals who have already been punished in the Decatur school system. The students must learn that violence is not an answer to the problems of our society, and that if they resort to that end they will be punished.
And, while Reverend Jackson's accomplishments at mediation
are great, he, too, needs to
acknowledge the wrongs of those he is defending before either side can move forward.
(Michael King is a member of Project 21 and an Internet and
radio broadcaster in Atlanta, Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.
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