Zero Tolerance: An Interview with Jesse Jackson on Race and School Discipline

When seven black high school students in a small town in Illinois were expelled, the Reverend Jesse Jackson saw something else going on. Bob Wing and Terry Keleher talk to him about the subtext of Decatur.

By Bob Wing Mar 10, 2000

On September 17, 1999, seven African American male students were involved in a brief fight at a football game in Decatur, Illinois. While no weapons were involved and no one was injured, each was expelled for two years. The Reverend Jesse Jackson saw the expulsions as an issue of racial bias in school disciplinary policies.

After leading a 5,000 person protest march, Jackson was indicted on charges of mob action, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and solicitation to commit a crime. But by taking on the Decatur school board, he has dramatized the racial bias of zero tolerance policies and the racial disparities in suspension rates throughout the country. We interviewed Reverend Jackson On December 13, 1999 on the importance of the case.

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.

CL: Your involvement helped bring the state officials into the case. What is their stance?

JJ: The state superintendent of schools said the expulsions should be put in abeyance and the students should be put into alternative education. The state attorney general agreed, but the Decatur school board rejected their advice.

Then, Illinois Governor Ryan, a Republican, also said that the sentence was too harsh. The Decatur board said, well, ok, then we’ll expel them for one year–totally arbitrary. They unequivocally refused to give the kids due process. So we said, no. We rejected the idea that all of the kids should be expelled for one year without due process.

JJ:The board escalated after we rejected their one year offer. They made a school film of the fight available to CBS. They called the kids "mob-like," "gang-like," and "thugs." They got the State Attorney to file charges against the students for mob action. They intend to try them in court in February. They released the students’ private records to the press. That’s against the law, but they released their private records.

So, we got the parents to file a lawsuit against the board for releasing the private records. And we have a suit in court protesting the racial disparity in the whole process of punishment in Decatur.

CL: Why is the school board so intransigent?

JJ: The school board is the third largest employer in town. It is a major power base in the city: there is a power structure involving its employees, its contractors, its consultants.

Sixteen percent of Decatur’s population is black and 40 percent of Decatur’s public schools students are black or brown. But there are six whites and one black on the school board. Many whites who vote for the school board send their children to private academies. They have a political or business interest in the board of education, not in the children that are being served by it.

So blacks are effectively disenfranchised inside that school system; the parents have no voice. Every position of influence is held by a white person–the counselors, the contractors, the vendors, the school board officers, and 95 percent of the teachers–every position of power.

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 the race cut.

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 percent are functionally illiterate. Eighty percent of them are in on non-violent drug charges, but only one in ten get drug treatment. So they come out of jail sicker and slicker, and return quicker. There is a 75 percent recidivist rate. The racial disparity is clear, but the very move towards intolerance toward our youth is a basic one.

CL: You recently met with U.S. Secretary of Education Ed Riley to discuss the racial disparities in public school discipline. What did he have to say and what did you propose to him?

JJ: Well, one thing I was asking for was for some national data on suspensions. His latest data is from 1994. But he promised to come out with more recent data this Spring. Secretary Riley said he thinks it’s true that those suspended are disproportionately black and disproportionately southern–the same forces that once locked these [black] kids out of school, now push them out! They either track them or subtract them. When they locked us out, we fought, but we have gotten used to being pushed out.

CL: What do you see happening next?

JJ: I think that now there’s a reevaluation 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 him 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 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.