Decatur Revisited

Last spring, controversy in this Illinois city exposed the racial inequalities in zero tolerance policies. A year later, not much has changed.

By Linda Lutton

When seven students here were expelled last school year for fighting at a high school football game, the case exploded into a national debate about zero tolerance and what the United States does with youth who get banned from school. With network cameras focused on Decatur as the Rev. Jesse Jackson led protesters down its streets, this small city came to illustrate the nation’s practice of dumping disruptive youth out of school with little to keep them busy, educated, or out of more trouble.

One year later, with the protesters gone and the cameras off, the fate of those youths illustrate that not much has changed.

Two of the expelled youths received diplomas in June. But of the other five, Decatur officials say, only one re-enrolled in school this fall. Two spent 12 hours a week in a GED program last year without getting a GED. Three were arrested last fall for allegedly beating and robbing an acquaintance of $120. The federal government rejected the school district’s bid for funds to improve alternative education for such students. Money promised by the state never came.

The saga illustrates a nationwide struggle. Despite zero tolerance legislation and speeches about getting tough on disruptive students, questions persist about how to educate them, discipline them, or modify their behavior. Many states report record rates of suspensions and expulsions under zero tolerance policies. But what happens to these youth?

“A lot of these kids getting expelled are ending up at home or out on the street,” says Angelo Ancheta of Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project, co-author of a recent study on zero tolerance policies. ” The [state] legislatures are lagging behind in terms of trying to either turn back zero tolerance policies or trying to deal with it in some other way.”

A look at Decatur raises questions about the fate of students who are expelled, and about the availability, quality, and funding of alternative education programs to educate them and steer them away from more trouble.


The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights estimates that 87,000 students were expelled in the U.S. during the 1997-1998 school year, the only year for which the federal government has statistics. State-level data suggest that expulsions have soared in recent years — a phenomenon most often attributed to the proliferation of zero tolerance policies intended to make schools safer. In Illinois, for instance, 1,182 students were expelled from school in the 1990-91 school year. By 1998-99 that number had more than doubled to 2,744.

“We’ve gotten expulsion happy,” says Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. Many mark the federal Gun-Free School Act (GFSA) of 1994 as the birth of zero tolerance fever — and of the rise in expulsions and suspensions. That legislation required states to pass laws mandating that local school districts expel for one calendar year any student bringing a gun to school. The act carried its own zero tolerance enforcement: states that failed to pass legislation would lose their federal education funding. All 50 states passed legislation.

Some states and school districts took the federal requirement further, ordering expulsion for weapon or drug possession, for fighting, and for threatening violence. “We then had a proliferation of local policies that were broader and more sweeping — sweeping kids out of schools,” says Joan First, director of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students.

The number of students expelled for bringing a firearm to school has actually gone down since passage of the GFSA — to 3,930 in the 1997-98 school year, from 5,724 the year before. However, federal officials admit that record-keeping problems may have inflated the initial numbers. Nonexistent, incomplete, inconsistent, and inaccurate student expulsion data are rife in school districts as well as the national level.

Decatur illustrates how hard it is to grasp the size of the problem. Asked how many students were expelled in the last school year, top school district officials provided three different numbers: 14 (Superintendent Kenneth Arndt), 10 (his administrative assistant, who keeps the records on expelled students), and 12 (Decatur’s report to the state).

As for what happened to those expelled students, the superintendent says except for the high-profile Decatur seven, he has “no idea.” The district keeps no such records.


When the seven students were expelled in October 1999, their educational options barely outnumbered the two years for which they were initially banished. They could leave the state, enroll in private school, or stay home for two years, then come back to high school (at which time they’d be 18, 19 and 20 years old).

Limited data suggest that fewer than half of all expelled kids enter alternative education programs. According to the annual GFSA report for 1999, just 43% of all students expelled for bringing a firearm to school during the 1997-98 school year were referred to an alternative educational placement.

But students expelled for firearms represent only about 4% of all expulsions. A 1997 U.S. Department of Education survey found that of the disciplinary actions taken against students for possession of drugs, alcohol, or a weapon other than a firearm (which includes everything from a rock to knife), only about 20% involved transfers to alternative schools. Besides expulsions, the U.S. Office of Civil Rights documented about 3.2 million suspensions in 1997-98.

“The three million children suspended or expelled in a given year may well represent a much larger problem than the threat posed by serious school violence,” suggests the D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute and the Children’s Law Center in their April 2000 report, “School House Hype: Two Years Later.”

“School expulsion is a big predictor of more serious and chronic behavior,” says Krisberg of the Oakland, California-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency. “Kids who are expelled from school have bad outcomes in terms of juvenile justice.” He says an analysis of adolescent health data shows that kids who were expelled or suspended from school were much more likely to be victims of violent crime in the subsequent reporting period.


As in much of education, what happens to students after they’re expelled depends largely on where they live.

A recent count by the Advancement Project and Harvard’s Civil Rights Project found that 26 states require districts to provide expelled students with alternative education. According to the project’s report, “Opportunities Sus-pended: The Devastating Consequences of Zero Tolerance and School Discipline,” 18 additional states “authorize” districts to provide such education. But recent assessments by the Education Commission of the States and the National Conference on State Legislatures counted fewer than a dozen states mandating districts to continue educating expelled students.

The above is excerpted from the October issue of Youth Today, publication of the American Youth Work Center, based in Washington, D.C.