A federal judge today upheld the expulsion of six high school students who brawled with other students at a football game in Decatur, Ill., in September, ruling that their constitutional rights to due process were not violated by the school district's zero tolerance policy against violence.
U.S. District Judge Michael P. McCuskey also rejected claims by the students, all of whom are black, that the one-year expulsions were racially motivated and excessively harsh for what they characterized as a "simple fistfight" without weapons. McCuskey said that if school boards are not allowed to assert their authority against such conduct they will be perceived as being unable to maintain control of their schools.
The ruling was a defeat for civil rights leader Jesse L. Jackson, who brought national attention to Decatur by staging demonstrations against what he called the "arbitrary and capricious" nature of zero tolerance policies against school violence that were popularized in the wake of mass killings at schools in Littleton, Colo., and elsewhere.
Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition sued the Decatur School Board, seeking reinstatement of the expelled students and contending that black students were being "racially profiled," because African Americans make up less than half of the student population but accounted for 82 percent of the students expelled in the last three years.
McCuskey rejected that argument too, writing in a 30-page opinion that a claim of racial discrimination cannot be based on "mere statistics standing alone" and that there was no evidence of discrimination.
Vowing to appeal McCuskey's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary, Jackson said today's decision was a "harsh and radical disregard for the educational future of children" and an "international disgrace that deserves world scrutiny."
"The anti-civil rights movement, the dream-busters, have been underestimated," Jackson said at a news conference here. He said he was disappointed but not deterred, and announced that his group will stage protests in Decatur on Saturday and again Jan. 25.
In Decatur, School Superintendent Kenneth Arndt said he was pleased but thinks that the case had been "a costly detour on the path to rebuilding. Our community is still in turmoil."
In his opinion, issued in Urbana, McCuskey was particularly adamant about the need of local education authorities to create a safe school environment without court interference. He cited a 1994 decision in an Illinois case in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that the nation's public education system relies on the discretion and judgment of local school administrators without "federal court correction of errors in the exercise of that discretion which do not rise to the level of violations of specific constitutional guarantees."
Dismissing Jackson's contention that the expulsions were too harsh for a fistfight, the judge said a videotape of the melee showed the students "raising havoc in the midst of a captive audience of football fans."
The judge said the expelled students, whose two-year expulsions were reduced to one year following the intervention of Gov. George Ryan (R), failed to show that the school district's zero tolerance policy has had any impact on student disciplinary cases in general, much less an impact on any race-based imposition of punishment.
He also said the school board could properly find that the expelled students violated a prohibition against "gang-like" activity because evidence showed that the Sept. 17 fight was a continuation of a conflict between two rival gangs, the Vice Lords and the Gangster Disciples.