Jackson faces tale of the tape in Illinois

November 15, 1999

This is an edited excerpt of a Chicago Tribune editorial, which was published Thursday.

LET's go to the videotape," the authorities in Decatur, Ill., said. And within a few hours, the reason for the Decatur School Board's position in the controversy over six expelled students was clear, the compromise it struck earlier in the week with Gov. George Ryan was vindicated.

Too bad things had to become as inflamed as they did before the tape, a slam-dunk piece of evidence for the school board, was revealed. But those who questioned the board's action -- including the Rev. Jesse Jackson -- can hardly be blamed for insisting on an explanation for so Draconian a sanction as a two-year suspension with no possibility of attending even an alternative school. That sort of punishment is an educational death penalty and calls for more than routine scrutiny.

The compromise -- a one-year suspension and alternative schooling -- seems eminently fair. It is now up to the six expelled students to make the most of this opportunity -- and in doing so to make up for the trouble they have caused their community and themselves.

Student brawl

The six students were expelled for their roles in a fight in the stands at a Sept. 17 football game at Eisenhower High School in Decatur. The videotape, shot by a spectator, shows a melee already in progress, with fists flying and at least one kick being thrown.

As participants in the brawl run from or chase one another, others in the stands seek cover, some of them shielding smaller children from potential blows.

Clearly, those involved in the fight endangered not only one another but also many innocent bystanders. And it probably was just luck that kept any of the fighters and bystanders from being seriously injured.

Obviously, a stiff penalty was called for -- something that would not just punish but also would be educational as to the price of such misbehavior. But two years?

That's not educational. That's the school board wiping its hands of responsibility for these students, exiling them uneducated to the streets to become menaces to society at large. And it doesn't wash to say that they were headed that way anyway.

School board's failure

Mr. Ryan apparently helped the board to see that. And while Mr. Jackson appeared intractable at first, the videotape apparently helped him see the wisdom of the Ryan compromise. Perhaps Mr. Jackson will return to Decatur occasionally over the next year, to check up on these youths for whom he put himself on the line. And to remind them: You owe me.

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