"Fight continues for Decatur students' rights"

Kevin Lindemann and Cathy Campo kklcac at SPAMearthlink.net
Wed Nov 24 16:41:17 MST 1999

Fight continues for Decatur students' rights

By Fred Gaboury

This article was reprinted from the November 27, 1999 issue of the
*People's Weekly World.* For subscription information see below. All
rights reserved - may be used with PWW credits.

DECATUR, Ill. - In an effort to create an atmosphere where "public
policy can triumph over personal pride," the Rev. Jesse Jackson
announced a change of tactics in the continuing effort to win
reinstatement of six African-American high school students expelled for
two years because of a fight at a high school football game here.

At a Nov. 18 press conference, Jackson said, "We will suspend our
demonstrations in Decatur and the children will be enrolled in
alternative schools."

He said the fight will now be conducted on two fronts - sending the
young men to alternative schools and going to federal court to deal with
the board's public release of confidential information.

Jackson said he hopes to work out a process where the youths will be
evaluated on the basis of academic achievement and behavior, with the
prospect of returning to class when the second semester begins in

The six also face criminal charges that were filed by a state's attorney
two months after the fight took place.

In a meeting with the editorial board of the city's Herald and Review
newspaper, Jackson called for a blue-ribbon panel to review each
student's performance. He said the Decatur School District, the state
Board of Education and Rainbow/PUSH should be represented on the panel.

Jackson was critical of Kenneth Arndt, the hard-nosed Decatur school
superintendent, who refused to allow the boys' admission to an
alternative school until Jackson and the Illinois State Board of
Education intervened.

The school board voted four-to-one to expel the students. Only Jeffrey
Perkins, the sole Black member of the five-member board, voted "no."
Perkins, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical
Workers, was defeated in his bid for reelection earlier this year.

He said he voted against the expulsions because he thought the penalty
was too harsh, that those involved in the fight had been charged, tried
and sentenced as a group with no consideration given to individual

"But worst of all," he told the World in a telephone interview, "the
board's majority justified their decision on a 'zero tolerance' policy,
a policy that has never been written down or discussed publicly

Perkins was also upset by the release of confidential information
dealing with the academic achievement and attendance of the youths.

Jackson's participation came after the board refused to reduce the
punishment in discussions with the local Rainbow/PUSH Chapter. "I called
and asked him," said the president of the local organization. "And, as
is usually the case, he agreed."

Shortly after his arrival, Jackson was able to mobilize thousands in
support of the expelled students. Nightly rallies at a local church, as
well as a mass demonstration, resulted in board reducing the expulsions
to one year with the offer that the youths would be admitted to an
alternative school during that time.

Decatur, a manufacturing city of 80,000 in central Illinois, is home to
facilities owned by Bridgestone/Firestone, Caterpillar and Archer
Daniels Midland, among the biggest of the big transnational

In the mid-90s, the city was rocked by simultaneous strikes by the Auto
Workers against Caterpiller and by the Rubber Workers (now part of the
Steel Workers) against Bridgestone/Firestone. At the same time, some 750
workers at the AE Staley plant were locked out in a bitter
two-and-a-half year struggle.

Although the city is only about 16 percent Black, African Americans make
up 41 percent of the citiy's school population. Only five percent of all
school district employees are Black. The expulsions came some two weeks
after a white police officer shot and killed a young Black man. The
officer was acquitted by a departmental hearing.

School Board President Jacqueline Goetter, wife of a prominent Decatur
physician and president of the Macon County Economic Development
Corporation, is a prime example of what many see as the concentration of
power in the hands of a small elite. A recent article in the Chicago
Sun-Times described Goetter and her husband as members of the "country
club set."

- Lance Cohn contributed to this story.

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