Jewish World Review Dec. 7, 2001 / 22 Kislev 5762
You remember Decatur. The downstate factory town found itself sucked into the national media vortex like a tantalizing strand of wet spaghetti in November 1999. That was when a spectator at a high school football game recorded stunning video of a wild fight that rumbled for less than half a minute through the bleachers.
Besides criminal charges, six students were expelled for two years under the school district's "zero tolerance" disciplinary policies. A seventh was allowed to withdraw from school.
When Jackson arrived to protest the zero-tolerance policies as a "death sentence" for juveniles who deserve another chance, he caught heat from liberals and conservatives alike for coming to the defense of the hoodlums, presumably because they all were black.
Undaunted, Jackson led months of protests that resulted in his going to jail along with others. Lots of meetings and court sessions led to a deal negotiated by Gov. George Ryan. The Decatur school district reduced the suspensions to one year and gave the youths the option of enrolling in alternative education programs.
Until the governor stepped in, a technicality in Illinois law prevented expelled students from being admitted to alternative education programs. Such banishment satisfied those who were seeking punishment but it also made life harder for kids who wanted to complete their education.
Now, after two years of being hammered from the political right and left for defending the Decatur roughnecks, Jackson has reason to gloat.
Two of the students, Errol Bond, now 18, and Roosevelt Fuller, 20, graduated from the alternative programs, and Courtney Carson, 19, earned his GED. All three enrolled in Richland Community College in Decatur and Rainbow/PUSH Coalition awarded them $1,000 each from the organization's scholarship fund.
The apparent success experienced by some of the Decatur Seven is making Jackson's point for him: One size of punishment does not fit all cases.
Unfortunately, Jackson's vindication would have been sweeter had more of the Decatur lads done a better job of behaving themselves. Three who did not go to college, Bruce Manns, 18, Terrence Jarrett, 18, and Shawn Honorable, 18, have had more minor scrapes with the law, Rainbow/PUSH leaders say.
Another, Greg Howell, 19, once a promising student and track star, dropped out of the community college, citing financial problems.
The more you learn about the "Decatur Seven," the more you realize how different they are in their histories, their aspirations and the support they received -- or didn't receive -- from their families, friends and communities.
"One mother told us up-front that she didn't give a you-know-what about her son," said Keith L. Anderson, a local after-school program director and Rainbow/PUSH's Decatur representative. "If you don't have support in your life, you're not going to make it. The only reason you and I are successful people is that there was somebody in our lives to help encourage us."
Indeed, As an African-American parent who grew up in a low-income factory-town neighborhood, I know how easy it is for kids to go either way, into good or evil, in their formative years.
I used to envy kids who had family wealth. I have since learned about virtues more valuable in the long run than money. I feel sorry for any kid, rich or poor, who is not blessed with the strong moral and emotional support I received at every turn from my family, our church, our neighbors, my school and the rest of the community.
There have been many complaints about the failure of zero-tolerance programs to appreciate the individuality of kids. There have been horror stories like that of the 8-year-old boy punished for aiming a piece of chicken at a teacher like a gun. Or the 4th grade girl who was punished for wearing a Tweety Bird purse with a chain. Or the first-grader who was punished for bringing a plastic ax to a school Halloween party as part of his firefighter costume.
The most tragic sin that zero-tolerance policies commit is to erase the individual by treating all cases as if all offenders are alike. Applied to kids, such policies essentially discard those who misbehave as if they not only can't be helped but are not worth helping. Kids need more than our condemnation when they do harm. They also need our encouragement when they try to do good.
Or, as Jackson put it, "If they're in a deeper hole, they need a longer
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