Correction to This Article
The article on the arrests of six teenagers in Jena, La., incorrectly reported that defendant Mychal Bell had no prior criminal record. Bell had a juvenile record that had not been made public at the time of the article's publication.
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La. Town Fells 'White Tree,' but Tension Runs Deep

Tina Jones of Jena, La., stands under a tree at Jena High School where three nooses were found dangling last year. The incident set off racial unrest in the town, including a fight for which her son Bryant Purvis faces criminal charges. School officials had the tree cut down this summer.
Tina Jones of Jena, La., stands under a tree at Jena High School where three nooses were found dangling last year. The incident set off racial unrest in the town, including a fight for which her son Bryant Purvis faces criminal charges. School officials had the tree cut down this summer. (By Darryl Fears -- The Washington Post)

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"If this had been a fight between only black students, there would not have been this penalty," said Flaherty, who is white. "This is not a group of kids with a history of trouble, but they do have a history of speaking out."

Liz Ryan, chief executive of the Washington-based Campaign for Youth Justice, said Flaherty's observations are supported by research. Black youths represented 28 percent of juvenile arrests and 58 percent of youths sent to adult prisons between 2002 and 2004, according to a study by the campaign titled "And Justice for Some: Differential Treatment of Minority Youth in the Justice System."

"Kids of color are much more likely to be sent to adult courts than white kids," Ryan said. "It's the greatest disparity in the juvenile justice system."

The parents of the victim, David and Kelli Barker, told reporters they are tired of the attention generated by the case and declined to comment. But in a June interview with the Daily Town Talk newspaper in nearby Alexandria, La., David Barker said the prosecution was fair.

"All you hear is, 'Justice for the Jena Six.' I wouldn't mind justice for the one," he said. "It doesn't matter the race -- what matters is what happened to our son."

Jena sits on a winding state highway, a sleepy rural outpost. Once upon a time, it was Ku Klux Klan country. But, "in the past 50 years, our little town has come a long way," said school board member Billy Wayne Fowler. He said white people in the town are no longer racist, but he acknowledged that black people were mistreated in the past.

Black residents said the tying of the nooses was evidence that race relations have not improved that much. They said the superintendent's decision to hand only a three-day suspension to the white students who tied the nooses, overriding the principal's decision to expel them, sparked the anger that led to the disturbance.

The chain of events began at the start of school last September. At an assembly that kicked off classes, a black freshman asked the white principal if black students could sit under "the white tree" -- a shade tree where only white students regularly sat. The answer was, "You can sit anywhere you want."

But when black students showed up in the broiling hot yard, they found three nooses hanging from the tree's branches. After a number of scuffles, the district attorney came to the school and gathered students for a tough talk.

"I can make your life go away with the stroke of a pen," they recalled him saying. Black students said he looked directly at them. Walters denied it.

The incident was never reported to police, said U.S. Attorney Donald W. Washington. A report might have triggered a hate-crime investigation, although federal authorities rarely go after juveniles for such crimes. Washington added that if the students had been expelled, tensions might have been eased and the violence avoided.

In the weeks that followed, the fighting continued. In one scuffle, Robert Bailey, one of the six teenagers now facing trial, said a white man broke a beer bottle over his head after jumping him at a party, but there was no immediate investigation. Months later, Justin Sloan, who is white, was charged with simple battery and given probation for that attack.

Bailey was involved in a second incident when he and friends spotted one of his attackers at a gas station. As Bailey and his friends approached, they said, the white teenager ran to his truck and brandished an unloaded shotgun at them. Bailey helped wrest the weapon away, refused to give it back and was charged with stealing the gun.

Days later came the school fight that led to the prosecutions. Sheriff Carl Smith said the crimes justified the charges.

"It's gotten into the media, and the media has spread it all over the United States that this is about race when it's not about race," he said.

Black parents strongly disagree.

"It's always been about race in Jena. Once you're here, you learn to deal with what happens," said Caseptla Bailey, Robert Bailey's mother. "Some of the things that have gone on, we allowed to go on. It's just gotten to a point that people were ready to stand up and fight."


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