Bad behavior doesn't need a champion


November 21, 1999|By Norris West

WE ARE beginning to expect too much from our children. We want them to make wise decisions and follow rules although we often tell them that rules mean nothing.

We offer them excuses and explanations for bad behavior: Did the other guy start the fight? Does the teacher always pick on you? Was it about your manhood?

Violence, particularly in schools, becomes acceptable, justified and defended if a parent can pin the blame on someone else.

Signals like this guide young minds.

Children across the nation are getting an awful message from Decatur, Ill., where the Rev. Jesse Jackson is defending African-American high school students who were captured on tape beating the heck out of other teen-agers.

It was an ugly incident.

Decatur school officials expelled six students for two years. A harsh punishment? Perhaps.

Extreme enough to attract consternation from the leading civil rights figure of this generation? Hardly.

Jackson in Philly

At this point, a thought or two about Mr. Jackson:

When he visited my high school 25 years ago, he brought hope. Overbrook High in Philadelphia had gone from mostly white to mostly black, and we knew we weren't getting the quality of education our predecessors got.

Mr. Jackson was inspirational to us back then because his message was education. We knew he was fighting discrimination on other fronts. We had to do our part, he instructed, by being good students and good citizens. When opportunities opened, we had to be prepared.

He carried this message to many predominantly black high schools in many cities and towns.

Always controversial, often criticized as opportunistic, he's done a lot to improve lives here, and he's rescued lives abroad.

He's made mistakes and paid for them. He ran for president twice and added much to the national debate. All in all, he's been good for African Americans and the nation.

But his message from Decatur couldn't be more different than the one he delivered in the Overbrook High auditorium a generation ago. Instead of pushing students toward excellence, he is trying to defend the intolerable.

Mr. Jackson was right when he said students used no guns or knives while fighting in the bleachers at Eisenhower High School in Decatur on Sept. 17. But the melee was hardly as minor as he described.

Perhaps teen-agers didn't hear or read his statement, which made me want to run and cover every young ear. No time is good to defend violent behavior, no matter who does it. Not in Decatur. Not here.

We cannot blame every disciplinary action against an African-American student on discrimination. Baseless claims undermine the credibility of real ones. Anne Arundel County expelled 443 students in the 1998-99 school year. That was an impressive 17 percent drop from the previous year. Disturbing, however, was the measly 2 percent decline in expulsions among African-American students: 199 compared with 203 in the 1997-98 school year.

Even more disturbing: Expulsions of black students represent 45 percent of the total although black children are only 19 percent of the school population.

Are Anne Arundel school officials picking on black students? I'm sure this happens. Some biases die hard. But students have to take responsibility for their actions, and parents must make sure they do.

What responsibilities do we have as parents? What messages are we sending our children before they board the school bus? Are we insisting that they follow common rules or advise them to flout them when necessary? Do we insist that they give teachers and fellow students the respect they deserve? Do we ensure that bad behavior will never be defended and always bring consequences?

Silent on consequences

The message from Decatur is silent on consequences. And it does not descend from African-American traditions, regardless of whether you favor Marcus Garvey or Thurgood Marshall.

The incident made me yearn for the spirit that guided our past civil rights leaders. Leaders went to jail over the racist separate-but-equal myth, jobs, voting rights and access to public accomodations.

They didn't go to jail for defending the indefensible.

It is a shame that Mr. Jackson is wasting energy on this. He and his peers have made progress, but real causes remain. African-American students still, as a whole, get the least qualified teachers. Glass ceilings remain in the private sector, and discrimination in housing, lending and business opportunities continue to frustrate many industrious people.

Things have gone way off course.

African-American students in Anne Arundel County and elsewhere don't need to hear that bad behavior has a champion. Messages like that will keep the black expulsion rate off the charts.

Students should hear the same message that Mr. Jackson delivered to my class a long time ago. It's still relevant.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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