First-Class Jails, Second-Class Schools

An interview with Jesse Jackson

By Bob Wing and Terry Keleher

The national spotlight was on Decatur, IL, last fall, when seven African-American male students were expelled for two years following a brief fight at a football game, even though no weapons were involved and no one was injured. The Rev. Jesse Jackson brought the issue to national attention when he led a protest of 5,000 people against the expulsions.

The following interview with Jackson is condensed from a longer interview in the Spring 2000 issue of ColorLines, a national magazine of race, culture, and action. Jackson was interviewed by Bob Wing, executive editor of ColorLines, and Terry Keleher, director of the Applied Research Center’s ERASE Initiative focusing on racism in the schools.

ColorLines: What actually happened that led to the expulsions in Decatur?

Jesse Jackson: The Chicago Tribune did a full investigation of the fight, which took place at a high school football game on September 17, 1999. They found that the fight lasted 17 seconds and involved seven male students, all Black. They found that there were no guns, no drugs, no chains, no knives, no bloodshed, no injuries. The fight was less violent than a hockey match. They found that there was no premeditation. But the seven kids were expelled for two years!

At first, the principal suspended two or three of the boys for ten days. That would have been ordinary. But the Decatur school board overruled them, saying it had “zero tolerance,” and expelled the kids for two years. Two of the students were seniors with less than four credits to go for graduation.

At the hearing, the boys were not allowed counsel. They were not allowed to face their accusers. There was no cross-examination. The parents were given no role, no degree of involvement. [Following protests, the board later reduced the expulsions to one year and allowed the students to enroll in an alternative program.]

CL: Why is this case so important? What do you think it represents?

JJ: Actually, once we got pulled into it, we thought it would be a relatively short stay, but it just got deeper. Decatur reveals the DNA of this racial crisis, this class crisis in the schools.

As I got deeper into it, I realized there is this tremendous anger towards America’s youth – three strikes and you’re out, mandatory sentencing, and so on. Politicians refuse to modernize schools, they cut out midnight basketball, but build all these new jails. First-class jails, second-class schools. This is zero tolerance.

That is why I kept saying this issue is not just Black and white, it’s wrong and right. There is an ethical issue. There’s clearly a race pattern, but there are also class and gender disparities in how this punishment’s been meted out arbitrarily and capriciously.

CL: At first you seemed to be downplaying the race issue, saying this was an issue of right and wrong. More recently you’ve emphasized race.

JJ: I tried to be a racial bridge in that situation and not further tear the community apart. I said that it’s not right that there were over 1,700 suspensions last year, out of 10,000 students. One thousand of them were Black. But there are too many suspended, whether white or Black. I was trying to keep mobilizing white allies and not unwittingly solidify whites behind the race fear.

There’s definitely a heightened race dimension, but there is generally a move against all youth – toward punishing pregnant girls, jailing kids, sentencing them as if they were adults. Ninety percent of kids in jail are high school drop-outs and 92% are functionally illiterate. Eighty percent of them are in on non-violent drug charges, but only one in ten gets drug treatment. So they come out of jail sicker and slicker, and return quicker. There is a 75% recidivist rate. The racial disparity is clear, but the very move towards intolerance toward our youth is a basic one.

CL: What do you see happening next?

JJ: I think that now there’s a re-evaluation all across the country of the absurdities of zero tolerance. It started out as zero-tolerance against kids having guns in schools, but the add-ons to zero tolerance have made it absurd. One kid had a little rubber hammer as part of his Halloween costume: weapons charge. Another kid gave another kid two lemon cough drops: drug charge. Another kid’s mother sent her to school with a little cake butter knife to give slices to her friends: weapons charge.

Now Secretary Riley is saying that no punishment should result in putting kids out of school. That is his interpretation of federal law – that those [school districts] who violate the law jeopardize their access to federal funds.

So, I think that we are in a position to begin to arouse the national consciousness on just how extreme these policies have become. We will question all of them: zero tolerance, three strikes and you’re out, mandatory sentencing. You see, when we take out school psychologists, truant officers, counselors, art, music, and athletics, and bring in the police, the school gets turned into a feeder system for the penal system. They are gutting the educational infrastructure, and replacing it with the police.

Reprinted with permission of ColorLines.

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