Decatur's Scars Still Show Decade After Expulsions

Published November 23, 2009

DECATUR, Ill. (AP) - For the people at the heart of an uproar a decade ago over the expulsions of six Black boys from a Decatur high school, reminders of the national scrutiny the town endured and the divide the situation created are never far away.

Kenneth Arndt is no longer the superintendent of the city's schools, but he keeps an inch-long blue, velvet ribbon framed on the wall of his office in the Chicago suburbs – a ribbon he says he and other school workers wore after pressure built on them over the expulsions.

Betsy Stockard says as recently as four or five years ago she was told that there were people in town who wouldn't shop in her consignment store because she, as a Black member of the City Council, disagreed with the Rev. Jesse Jackson's decision to stage mass protests supporting the students.

"The glaring looks, the rolling of the eyes – that was kind of hard," said Stockard, who served on the council for 12 years before leaving office a few years ago.

And then there are the boys themselves, now no longer boys. At least two have had serious legal trouble since 1999. One finished college.

It's clear that, while many people in Decatur say they've moved on, the fight, expulsions and storm of unwelcome attention that followed have left their mark.

"It was unfortunately a very painful time for our community because it did divide the community," said Jackie Goetter, who was a member of the school board that expelled the students from Eisenhower High School. "There was a lot of local support for the school board and then there was a lot of local support for these students."

The students were involved in a brawl at a high school football game on Sept. 17, 1999 between Eisenhower and cross-town rival MacArthur High that spilled into the stands.

The school board initially expelled them for two years.

Ten years ago this month, Jackson and his Rainbow PUSH Coalition organized marches that included hundreds of people bused in from outside the area, criticizing the school board for what Jackson said was unfairly harsh treatment of the boys over a fight. The civil rights leader was briefly arrested during one protest.

"There's a long legacy of instant dismissal" in schools, Jackson said last week. "If the fight involved knives or guns or drugs or gangs, that would have been one issue. None of that came out. It was almost arbitrary in kicking those kids out."

Jackson brought attention to his contention that so-called "zero-tolerance" policies were not applied fairly to all. An Associated Press analysis has found in the 10 years since, the racial disparity in discipline between Whites and Blacks has gaped open.

In Decatur, expulsions rose to 77 – 66 percent of them Black – in 2004-05 before falling in the latest report to 23 – 20 Black – or about what they were a decade ago.

In that same period, suspensions have fallen 34 percent for Whites, while they've risen 41 percent for Blacks in a district where both White and Black enrollment has fallen in recent years. Black suspensions have declined in recent years, compared to earlier in the decade, however.

A school district spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

With Jackson in town, news reporters from across the country swarmed to Decatur, writing stories about a town divided by race and class.

"When that story broke, the reaction from those living outside of Decatur was almost seriously 100 percent against the school board," said Arndt, who is now superintendent of schools in Carpentersville, a Chicago suburb. "Then the videotape dramatically changed public opinion, overnight."

The videotape he talks about was shot by a parent at the game, and didn't emerge until the controversy bubbled over. Broadcast on national TV news, it showed, Arndt and others agree, a violent melee that moved swiftly and dangerously through crowded bleachers at the football game.

Stockard says now that she changed her mind and thought the boys shouldn't have been expelled two years – a period that was eventually lowered to a year after pressure from Jackson and then-Gov. George Ryan. She said she wishes the boys would have apologized, although at least one, Greg Howell, did publicly atone just after Jackson's arrival.

And Stockard wishes Decatur would have been allowed to handle its own problem.

"I took the stance that it was wrong for Jesse Jackson to come in with his entourage and do something, try to do something, about it without knowing the true facts," she said. "And then I felt it was wrong for him to bring busloads of people from not within our city to do a march against it."

Jackson pointed out he was invited by the students' parents and that he spoke with them, the kids, ministers and teachers before protesting the zero-tolerance severity of the punishment.

"No one can survive zero tolerance," Jackson said. "We all need mercy and grace."

Eventually, Jackson sued the district in federal court and lost.

The students involved in the fight have taken different paths.

At least one, Shawn Honorable, has done time in state prison. Now 26, Honorable is on parole after serving a part of a 10-year sentence for a 2004 felony drug conviction. Another, Roosevelt Fuller, now 28, is currently being tried in Decatur on home invasion charges.

Neither could be reached for comment by The Associated Press.

Courtney Carson finished college, Jackson said. He was helped by a Rainbow PUSH scholarship.

Ernest Jeffro, Shawn Honorable's second cousin, was in his early 20s when the fight happened. Now 32, he's a meat cutter at The Tennessee Meat Market in Decatur.

The expulsions, Jeffro said, were justified. But they're history, he believes.

"I think it's pretty much put behind us now," he said.

Stockard doesn't think so and even now dreads talking about it.

"It's not forgotten, and when you do this story," she tells a reporter before she stops mid-sentence and pauses before continuing. "But I can take it."

 

 

Written by <P>By John O’Conner, AP Political Writer</P>

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