Expelled Students Say A Fist Fight is Different

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

(CNSNews.com) - "A fist fight is different from a knife fight is different from a gun fight is different from a rape is different from a drug bust," said the Reverend Jesse Jackson, in defense of seven teenagers expelled from a Decatur, Illinois public school for two years.

The case is making national headlines, now that Jackson has become involved. Today, he plans to be arrested if necessary, in his effort to get the expelled teenagers back in school. "We urge the school district to put forth a punishment that leads to remedy and not rejection," Jackson said last night after an emergency school board meeting.

The teenagers were expelled after a fist-fight at a September 17 football game between MacArthur and Eisenhower high schools.

The students' attorney Lewis Myers said he plans to file a federal lawsuit later today, on the grounds that the Decatur school system violated the students' constitutional rights. He and Jackson say the school board went too far in expelling students, who haven't been charged with a crime. But the school board president called the fight a "mob action" that endangered hundreds of other people.

In a concession to the students, the school board Monday agreed to let the students attend an alternative public school, but Jackson is rejecting that solution. He plans to join a protest march on the students' behalf today outside Eisenhower High School. Yesterday's protests forced Eisenhower to cancel classes.

Decatur School Superintended Kenneth Arndt said he hopes it doesn't come to this, but he said Jackson and the others would be arrested if they refused to leave school grounds.

One of the expelled students said he thinks an apology should be enough to get him back into class: "We made a mistake; we never had a chance to apologize," said Eisenhower senior Greg Howell. "They make us look all terrible, and we want to apologize and keep it from happening again," he said.

Because of recent school violence and continuing threats of school violence, school systems around the country are adopting a zero-tolerance policy for fighting of any kind. In fact, the Decatur fist-fight that's now escalating into a court fight went all the way to the governor's office. Illinois Governor George Ryan spent yesterday mediating the dispute between Jackson and the Decatur school board, apparently to no avail.

The seven students expelled from school are all black, but Jackson says the case has nothing to do with racism. He said fairness is the issue, and he criticized the school for what he calls its high percentage of suspensions and expulsions.

On NBC's Today show Tuesday, Jackson accused the school board of bad judgement. He said other students have received lesser punishment for making bomb threats and dealing drugs.

"Let's have a remedy that results in making them better students," said Jackson. "They can only get involved in anti-social behavior" if they're expelled, he added.

Decatur School Board President Jackie Goetter, also speaking on the Today show, said she's satisfied that an alternative education program (one that gives the students high school credit) is the right choice. She says the students want immediate reinstatement - and that's not going to happen. "There has to be consequences for this action," said Goetter. "To characterize what we consider a life-threatening brawl as just a simple fist-fight is wrong - it's plain wrong," she said.

Asked what he considers an appropriate punishment, Jackson suggested probation rather than expulsion, and he expressed concern that the students' high school athletic careers not be derailed. "We must have the strength in schools to use something called counseling and probation and reclaim youth and redeem them, not just reject them ... even zero tolerance must have a love-sharing factor in the center of it," he said.