DA/School Officials Grant Exclusive Interviews

Craig Franklin, Jena Times, October 3, 2007

Three nooses, three-day suspensions, racially motivated prosecutions, and other misconceptions repeatedly reported in media and Internet accounts of the “Jena Six” saga were cleared up last week when officials from the school system, law enforcement, and district attorney’s office spoke with two reporters for exclusive, all access, interviews.

Since the massive rally that occurred in Jena September 20, parish officials have held several press conferences, including LaSalle School Superintendent Roy Breithaupt’s conference September 26 and LaSalle District Attorney Reed Walter’s conference September 27. Prior to speaking with media on those occasions, both officials granted interviews to a local reporter and a national columnist.

The interviews revealed much information that has never before been disclosed, including a detailed account of the infamous “noose” incident that occurred on Jena High School’s campus August 31, 2006.

Two Nooses

“According to JHS Assistant Principal Gawan Burgess’ report of the incident last August, two nooses were found hanging from the tree in the center of the school’s square as students arrived for school August 31, 2006,” LaSalle School System Child Welfare Supervisor Melinda Edwards said. “The nooses were made out of nylon ski rope, were crudely constructed, and were cut down around 7:55 a.m.”

Edwards was part of a committee that investigated the three white students who admitted to placing the nooses on the tree. The investigation was also overseen by Superintendent Breithaupt.

“There was a full investigation into this incident,” Breithaupt said. “But because it involved students of a school, we were bound by law to keep the results of the investigation confidential. That’s the reason we simply could not talk about it publicly.”

“Once it was determined who had placed the nooses in the tree, all three of the students were interviewed personally, by many different persons of authority,” the superintendent said. “The results of those interviews showed that the students were not motivated by hate and there was no indication from any of the students that they had any inclination to do any violence.” With so much emphasis on the nooses in this case, Edwards said it might surprise everyone to learn that the three students did not have a knowledge of black history in relation to the hanging of black citizens in the south during the civil rights movement.

“We discussed this in great detail with those students,” Edwards said. “They honestly had no knowledge of the history concerning nooses and black citizens. This may seem hard to believe for some people, but this is exactly what everyone on the committee determined.”

She also said that once the historical significance of the nooses was revealed to the students and how it was considered a tremendous insult to those of the black race, they showed great remorse.

“When they were told about the historical relevance of the nooses and how others would interpret their actions, they really were very remorseful,” she said. “I can honestly say that these boys regretted tremendously ever hanging those nooses.”

So, what was the motivation for the hanging of the nooses?

According to media accounts, the nooses were hung in response to a black student asking Burgess if he could sit underneath the tree. That exchange did take place in an assembly of all boys the prior day, however, that meeting has also been distorted, according to officials.

“What you had were boys joking with the assistant principal,” Edwards said. “Everyone laughed including the black student who asked the question. That exchange has been misconstrued by certain persons to formulate a reason for the hanging of the nooses the following day that simply is untrue.”

“When you look at all of the facts concerning this incident you really have a clearer picture of what occurred,” she said.

“The students responsible for hanging the nooses weren’t even at school the day the nooses were discovered,” he said. “When they did return, school administrators had already determined through their investigations that they had placed the nooses. They were immediately removed from the campus.”

During the following few days, many meetings were held concerning the event, eventually culminating in an expulsion hearing by the expulsion committee.

The True Punishment

“The result of this extensive investigation by the school system led to severe consequences for the three students,” Breithaupt said. “Even though we’d determined their true motivation had nothing to do with racial hate, we had to acknowledge that to the black community it would be perceived in that manner. Therefore, severe action was taken regarding the students and the hanging of the nooses.”

According to Breithaupt, the students were suspended for nine days where they attended classes at the system’s alternative school off campus. “Then they served two weeks of in-school suspension and also had a number of Saturday detentions,” he said. “They were also required to attend the discipline court and were referred to the FINS (Family in Need of Services) program. This is a program of intervention for families faced with crises that could continue for six months.”

During all of that, the students had to undergo evaluations from licensed professionals to determine that they were not a threat to any person. “Ultimately, after completing and passing all of the required provisions, they were permitted back into the general population of the school,” Breithaupt said. “To say that these students were simply ‘slapped on the wrist’ is a grave misconception of what punishment actually took place.”

Breithaupt said that the three students had no history of behavioral problems at school or away from school, which was a central ingredient in determining whether or not they were expelled.

“Our school system has a history of keeping students in school rather than expelling them,” the superintendent said. “We understand that there must be consequences for certain actions, but when we can, we provide second chances for students, realizing that the most important aspect of their life is to remain in the educational system.”

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About 80 protesters chanting “No justice, no peace” gathered outside the Justice Department on Tuesday to demand that federal authorities aggressively investigate the racially charged “Jena 6” case.

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The event, sponsored by the ANSWER Coalition, comes four days after civil rights leaders met with top Justice Department officials to push for more action on behalf of the six black teens arrested for beating a white classmate in Jena, La.

The confrontation followed months of escalating racial tensions touched off when three white students hung nooses from a tree on school grounds.

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