Posted on November 24, 2009

A Decade After Decatur Fracas, Racial Gap in School Discipline Widens

Daily Herald (Chicago), November 23, 2009

In the decade since mass protests over the punishment of six black students in Decatur, the state’s racial gap in discipline has split wide open. It’s such a gaping hole that now more than half of all Illinois children suspended from public schools are black, even though they represent less than one-fifth of the enrollment, according to an Associated Press analysis.

Expulsions also have disproportionately hit blacks, worrying education experts and state lawmakers about the effect of so many minority students missing classroom time.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson fixed the nation’s attention on the disparity when he led protests in November 1999 over two-year expulsions of six Eisenhower High School students for brawling in the bleachers at a football game. Joined by thousands of people who marched the streets of Decatur, the civil rights leader questioned whether discipline policies were fair to all students.

The AP analysis of state discipline records shows the racial divide has only worsened since then, from Chicago’s troubled schools to rural areas with few minority students:

    • Suspensions of black students have escalated by 75 percent since 1999, while those of white students have dropped more than 5 percent.
    • When it comes to the more serious punishment of expulsion, white students are kicked out 16 percent more often than a decade ago, but black students are expelled 56 percent more often.
    • Whites make up nearly three-fifths of public school enrollment, yet in the most recent data, they account for one-third or fewer of both suspensions and expulsions.


Hispanic suspensions are up too, but so is Illinois’ Hispanic population. Latino students now slightly outnumber blacks with 20 percent of school enrollment, but account for just over 17 percent of all suspensions in the latest data, compared to 51.3 percent for blacks.

Experts see many factors at work: cultural differences between students and teachers, poverty, academic achievement, problems with classroom management and teacher training. They also see the possibility of racial bias in the way students are treated.

“There’s a lot more going on than poverty and the characteristics of kids,” said Russell Skiba, an Indiana University researcher who studies school discipline.


In the largely black and Latino Chicago Public Schools, for example, suspensions for those groups jumped more than 150 percent in a decade; white suspensions were up 44 percent.

In the suburban counties surrounding Chicago, white suspensions fell while black ousters soared 94 percent. White suspensions fell in downstate schools too, while black suspensions increased 37 percent.


Skiba said a predominantly white teaching corps — 85 percent in Illinois, compared to 9 percent black — may be culturally mismatched with minority students. White teachers without proper training, he said, can misinterpret student actions that aren’t meant to be disruptive or threatening.

He has found little difference in the numbers of whites and blacks suspended for fighting, but punishment for “noncompliance” and “defiance” overwhelmingly is doled out to blacks, a more subjective transgression that might mean there’s a cultural misunderstanding between a teacher and a student.


And one recent study shows the complexity of the issue. University of Georgia professor Jeffrey Jordan and a colleague found that black teachers in a school district near Atlanta recommended discipline for black kids in larger proportions than white teachers.


Sidebar: School punishment totals

In the decade since the Rev. Jesse Jackson protested the expulsion of six black students from a Decatur high school, the racial gap between white and black punishment in Illinois schools has grown. Here is a history of suspensions and expulsions for white, black and Hispanic males and females:

Year White male White female Black male Black female Hispanic male Hispanic female Total
1999-00 79,950 25,234 70,984 32,425 21,043 7,001 239,161
2000-01 78,172 25,080 83,947 39,100 25,930 8,586 263,595
2001-02 79,183 25,468 78,039 36,901 23,683 8,078 253,957
2002-03 79,493 25,483 89,850 41,765 26,538 9,311 275,226
2003-04 80,089 26,836 104,999 50,935 33,180 11,826 311,097
2004-05 75,689 26,065 112,811 55,971 33,898 12,817 321,960
2005-06 75,693 25,439 108,736 55,923 37,767 14,671 324,328
2006-07 75,286 24,944 120,796 66,766 40,149 15,338 352,599
2007-08 74,468 25,027 118,825 61,589 43,191 17,018 351,904
Chg. 00-08 -7% -1% 67% 90% 105% 143% 47%

Sidebar: A look at the data

Here is a summary of findings after an Associated Press analysis of state data for public school suspensions and expulsions the last 10 years.


From 1999-00 to 2007-08:

  • Overall suspensions have increased 47 percent
  • White suspensions have declined 5.4 percent
  • Black suspensions have increased 74.5 percent
  • Hispanic suspensions have increased 114.7 percent

In 1999-00:

  • Whites made up 44 percent of the suspensions
  • Blacks made up 43.2 percent
  • Hispanics made up 11.7 percent

In 2007-08:

  • Whites made up 28.3 percent of the suspensions
  • Blacks made up 51.3 percent
  • Hispanics made up 17.1 percent

Of all suspensions from 1999-00 to 2007-08:

  • Whites made up 34.4 percent
  • Blacks made up 49.4 percent
  • Hispanics made up 14.5 percent


From 1999-00 to 2007-08:

  • Overall expulsions increased 43.7 percent
  • White expulsions increased 16.2 percent
  • Black expulsions increased 56.1 percent
  • Hispanic expulsions increased 81.2 percent

In 1999-00:

  • Whites made up 41.2 percent of the expulsions
  • Blacks made up 44.6 percent
  • Hispanics made up 12.9 percent

In 2007-08:

  • Whites made up 33.3 percent of the expulsions
  • Blacks made up 48.4 percent
  • Hispanics made up 16.3 percent

Of all expulsions from 1999-00 to 2007-08:

  • Whites made up 37.7 percent
  • Blacks made up 45.7 percent
  • Hispanics made up 14.9 percent

Average school population from 1999-00 to 2007-08:

  • White: 57.0 percent
  • Black: 20.1 percent
  • Hispanic: 17.1 percent

Note: Not all racial groups are represented in the above figures.

Source: Illinois State Board of Education

NEWS REPORTS describe a “fight” on September 17 between students of two high schools at a football game in Decatur, Ill. “Fight” conjures up images of shoves leading to punches among two, three, maybe four people. More than four pairs of flying fists is a brawl. About ten hooligans participated in the Decatur incident, and their “fight” was by no means restricted to them alone. Other spectators had to scramble out of their way, an older man and woman were nearly knocked over, and another couple was almost pushed off the stands. The rampage lasted for ten minutes, and officials had to interrupt the game. The video footage looks like a melee from a British soccer match — and shows the riot for what it was.

The school board suspended six of the teens, all public-high-school students, for two years, and prosecutors filed felony charges against them. Enter the Reverend Jesse Jackson. With scores of racial agitators and sympathetic newsmen in tow, Jackson has turned the “Decatur Six” into the silliest cause since Mumia Abu Jamal. He makes no effort to disprove the students’ guilt, nor does he even challenge the idea of stringent policies against school violence. His suggestion seems to be that in this case, the rules are not only unfair, but racist. All six expelled students are black.

Still, he insists that Decatur is in no way a racial issue, just one of fairness. Of course. So how is a school board’s implementing its zero-violence policy against violent goons unfair? Mainly, it seems, because the predominantly white board enforced its rules against blacks. Jackson also complains that Decatur schools have suspended disproportionate numbers of blacks in the past, although he does not consider whether those punishments might have been justified.

In an amazing redefinition of reality, the Reverend calls the riot “a schoolyard fight” and “something silly like children do.” He harps on the irrelevant fact that one of the expelled boys is an honor student, but conveniently ignores that three of the others are freshmen for the fourth time, and that most of them have a long track record of skipping school. (With a straight face, Jackson bemoans the loss of education the Decatur thugs will suffer as a result of their punishment.) He explains why the out-of-control brawl was so benign: “No blood, no injuries, no guns.” {snip}

Like other civil-rights radicals, Jackson sees black crime as the result of some sort of white conspiracy. When blacks break the law, the argument goes, a racist society has driven them to it. But that mentality is patronizing to blacks; it assumes that they are not in control of their own actions. “If you can’t call a black thug a thug, you’re a racist,” Tamar Jacoby reminds herself in Someone Else’s House, her heartfelt plea to Americans to close the still-existing separation of white and black life in America. By extension, if Jackson can’t call a black rioter a rioter, he’s a racist. For the Reverend, no issue involving blacks can ever be taken at face value. There is always an underlying agenda, and it’s always white racism.

{snip} Claiming to fight racial oppression in the Nineties, Jackson creates it where it does not exist. But many blacks have bought into his absurdity. A throng of protesters who came for Jackson’s Decatur rally last Sunday actually sang “We Shall Overcome.”

“From what I can see, it seems like they don’t care about black kids,” said one participant in a Jackson rally after the county prosecutor filed criminal charges against the students. That accusation would be better leveled against Jesse Jackson. The student bodies at Decatur public schools are nearly 40 percent black. Jackson would rather that law-abiding minorities pay the price of going to school with dangerous classmates than punish the offenders in any serious way.