"Injustice Begets Injustice"

Kevin Lindemann and Cathy Campo kklcac at SPAMearthlink.net
Wed Nov 17 17:04:19 MST 1999



Injustice Begets Injustice
By Jesse Jackson

 Zero tolerance. It sounds great, macho, alpha male. How often in recent
years have we heard a politician standing tall for zero tolerance? Zero
tolerance for what? Zero tolerance for poor children, for homeless
families, for rundown schools? No, it is always about personal -- not
social -- misdeeds. Zero tolerance for guns, drugs, violence and
alcohol. Applause. We want our children safe. We want our schools safe.
Zero tolerance sounds tough enough to make a difference.

 But macho posturing is not the same as good policy. In Decatur, Ill., a
school-board majority elected on a get-tough posture is showing how zero
tolerance can make schools bitter, not better.

 On Sept. 17, a brawl broke out in the bleachers at a high school
football game. Fists were flying. Kids ran to throw a punch or avoid
one. Onlookers huddled to get out of the way, trying to shield younger
children. It was a brawl. Disciplinary action was surely called for.

 But the Decatur School Board didn't hand out measured discipline; it
handed out hysteria and injustice. Seven teenage boys were charged. The
board tried them, convicted them and sentenced them to the streets --
expulsion for two years, no alternative-education credits. The boys were
not allowed to see the evidence or cross-examine the witnesses, such as
they were, against them.

 Now this was a macho teenage fistfight at a football game. No knives,
no guns, no one went to the hospital. But instead of being suspended for
a week, having privileges stripped, curfews enforced, the teens had the
book thrown at them.

 Why? The board president said that the school had a zero-tolerance
policy. We asked to see the policy so we could understand it. She
couldn't produce a copy. We asked her what it meant. Does it mean if two
third-graders get in a fistfight that they are expelled for two years?
She said she wasn't really clear. Nor, of course, were parents or
students.

 This wasn't Columbine High School; it was a Decatur fistfight. Last
year, a student threatened to bomb the high school. That student was
expelled for a year. Is a bomb threat deserving of more tolerance than a
fistfight?

 The one board member who voted against the sanctions was African
American, as were the seven students. The rest of the board was white.
Of 1,700 suspensions in Decatur, more than 1,000 have been African
American.

 But this isn't simply about race. It's about fairness. It's about how
we treat our young. When we protested in Decatur, white parents whose
children had also been summarily expelled for a mistake joined us.

 Injustice breeds injustice. To justify itself, the board started to
exaggerate the incident. ``This was mob action that endangered the lives
of hundreds of spectators,'' said School Board President Jackie Goetter.
Intimations of gang violence, lives threatened. No, this was a fight,
brief and wild, but one with no weapons and no serious injuries. There
is no evidence that the fight involved gangs. Now, to back up the board,
the county attorney has filed felony charges against some of the boys.
Turning a fistfight into a felony makes mockery of the law.

 One young man, Roosevelt Fuller, is a senior, captain of the basketball
team, a 3.5 grade point, who serves a peer mediator in school. He is
only a couple of credits away from graduating, with possible college
scholarship offers for basketball. The board's action would erase that
possibility. Fuller says, ``I'd just like to say sorry to the community
and the school board. What I did was a mistake.''

 For that mistake, he got expelled, and the school board trampled state
laws by offering him no alternative-education options to earn the
credits needed to graduate.

 Why no alternative way to earn academic credits? ``There has to be a
consequence to their action,'' said Goetter.

 Republican Gov. George Ryan is a conservative. But this isn't about
conservative or liberal, it's about right and wrong. When the governor
came to Decatur, he agreed that two years is ``too severe.'' He agreed
that zero tolerance was a posture, not a policy. He helped to get the
board to limit the expulsion to one year and to recommend alternative
education for the boys.

 Even the conservative Chicago Tribune got the point. ``Two years,
that's not educational,'' the Tribune editorialized. ``That's the school
board wiping its hands of responsibility for these students, exiling
them to the streets to become menaces to society at large.''

 Last week, Rainbow/PUSH helped the students file charges under the
Civil Rights Act in federal district court. We want the expulsions
enjoined. We want due process for these kids. We argue that if they show
good behavior for the remainder of the term at an alternative
educational facility, they should be allowed to return to graduate with
their classmates.

 Let's have zero tolerance of unequal funding of schools. Zero tolerance
of untrained teachers. But let's have a bit of mercy for a fistfight.
These are our children. They make mistakes, just like their parents do.
Let us not compound their rash behavior with rash condemnation.

 Jesse Jackson's column appears weekly. (c) 1999, Los Angeles Times
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