Back in his home in Chicago after a two-week standoff with school authorities in the central Illinois city of Decatur, Jesse L. Jackson has vowed to continue his battle to win reinstatement for six students who were expelled for fighting at a football game.

Jackson said in an interview that he was waging a war against a "whole national mood of fear," evidenced by the popularity of "zero-tolerance" policies against violence in schools, which he said has fueled public anger against youths generally and black youths in particular.

"We challenged this mood of relegating our youth to the scrapheap, and people are rethinking the policy of zero tolerance," said Jackson, founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and a two-time Democratic presidential candidate. "I think we have now revived a national debate about this Draconian policy, which is a policy of insensitivity toward our youth."

The national attention on the Decatur standoff has left some observers who have closely followed Jackson's 30-year career in civil rights wondering why such an astute student of public opinion would put so much political capital into a seemingly parochial issue, and then turn it into a personal crusade against zero-tolerance policies at a time when such policies appear to have gained wide popularity nationally.

In the wake of mass killings in Littleton, Colo., and other schools across the country, the public appetite for strict sanctions against school violence seems stronger than ever, according to some polls.

Jackson dismissed the polls, asserting: "Leaders of consequence can't follow public opinion. They have to mold public opinion."

Opinion surveys also reflect a sharp drop in public support of the six expelled Decatur students after a brief home video of the Sept. 17 fight in the football stadium's bleachers was broadcast nationally on network and cable television. The video shows the youths storming through one end of the bleachers and beating other students as men, women and children flee in clearly visible fear.

Jackson reiterated his insistence that the melee was a "simple fistfight" conducted without weapons and that the punishment did not fit the crime. He said the real issues in Decatur are the unfairness of the "collective punishment" the school board imposed--all six of the students received the same length of expulsion--and the capriciousness of the zero-tolerance policy, which he said "removes the ability to exercise mercy and judgment."

"In my house, there's zero tolerance for violence, but we don't kick them out in the street. We reproach them," Jackson said.

While repeatedly asserting that race was not an issue--all of the alleged perpetrators and the victims in the stands are black--Jackson has nonetheless complained that black students in the Decatur school system have received a disproportionate number of expulsions and that while 40 percent of the school population is black, only 9 percent of the teachers are African American.

But, he said, "this issue is too critical to be characterized as a race issue. Race plays some role, but the issue is fundamentally not about race. It is about fairness and proportion in dealing with all youth."

When the Decatur school board decided to reduce the students' expulsion time from two years to one and place them in an alternative school for that period, Jackson surprised many observers by not declaring victory and leaving Decatur with his entourage of supporters and the television camera crews that followed him there. Instead, he pushed the school board harder, leading a made-for-television march to Eisenhower High School on Tuesday, where he had to fight his way through photographers and reporters to reach the police, who handcuffed him and took him to jail. He was released on his own recognizance two hours later, despite his request to remain locked up overnight.

At the time, Jackson likened his battle to those fought by Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, vowing to continue his confrontation with the school board. "Sometimes struggles are protracted. Mandela was in jail for 27 years," he declared.

Jackson also puzzled reporters he had summoned to cover the march by saying the police were wrong to charge him with felony mob action when it was the media that had constituted the mob outside the high school. He also filed lawsuits in state and federal courts claiming that the school board had denied the students due process, challenging the zero-tolerance policy and accusing school officials of illegally releasing personal records dealing with the expelled students' attendance and behavior. The board, Jackson charged, had characterized the students as "gangsters and thugs." Yet, two were seniors only a few credits shy of graduation and one was captain of the varsity basketball team.

Jackson said he does not plan to return to Decatur this week because for the moment the battle will be fought in the courts. But he said he would return in the future if the school board refuses to review each student's offense on a case-by-case basis and reduce the punishment for at least some of them.

Paul Delaney, director of Howard University's Center for the Study of Race and Media, said he was not surprised by the stand Jackson is taking.

"Jesse has always been very astute at identifying hot-button issues and then taking them over," Delaney said. "I think he sees that zero tolerance has become part of the lexicon of schools as it has in police work, and he knows that blacks are well aware of all the studies that show black kids are expelled proportionally far more often than white kids are."

Delaney said Jackson clearly did not want to try to make Decatur primarily an issue of race, but that he also is politically savvy enough to know that the fairness issue would strike a resonant chord because blacks know that "you cannot separate race and fairness."

"For him, this is a traditional civil rights activity. The school board will become the police and he'll find his Bull Connor. This is the kind of fight he's used to," said Delaney, referring to Eugene "Bull" Connor, the Birmingham police commissioner who turned fire hoses and dogs on civil rights protesters in 1963.

Jackson's biographer, Marshall Frady, suggested that other forces may have motivated Jackson.

"He has been endlessly and fitfully lurching from one seemingly incidental confrontation to another," said Frady, author of the 1996 biography, "Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson." "He is sort of a misplaced-in-time hero in search of his defining drama."

Frady said that partly because of a "staggering ego" and partly because he is trapped in an era "far emptier" than when he joined the civil rights movement, Jackson is locked in a "relentless quest to be discovered."

"Occasionally he pulls it off," Frady said, citing Jackson's success in securing the release of hostages in Iraq and Kuwait in 1990. But in all of his campaigns, "once he gets involved in something, it's total absorption, at least over the short duration," Frady said.

The author added, "There's a huge hole of neediness there, needing the recognition, needing the reaffirmation as a significant figure," as illustrated by Jackson's mantra in speech after speech: "I am somebody!"

"Unfortunately for him, it is occurring in middling times," Frady said. "That's the trick."

Ernest W. Lefever, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, put it more bluntly, calling Jackson an "international ambulance chaser who seeks every opportunity to promote himself."

Lefever, an old civil rights warrior who battled segregation in the 1940s, said, "His motivation is publicity. He's trying to replicate what Martin Luther King did, but he has his own form of arrogance and insistence on getting in the limelight."

Lefever, who is white, said Jackson had "chosen a weak case" in Decatur because it is an issue of local control of a school's disciplinary policy and not a civil rights issue. "Jesse is wrong in butting into this situation, but I suspect he's looking around for an opportunity to get his face in front of television cameras," he said.

CAPTION: Four of the six students expelled after fighting at a football game join a prayer service with Jesse Jackson, who is pushing for reinstatement.

CAPTION: Jesse Jackson, above, led a standoff with the school board to denounce its zero-tolerance policies. At right, Courtney Carson, left, and Errol Bond were expelled for one year.