Jewish World Review Nov. 23, 1999 /13 Kislev, 5760
Who'll say 'I'm sorry' to
the other Decatur
AMID ALL THE SHOUTS and bluster during the Jesse
Jackson-led school showdown in Decatur, three
quiet sentences ring more poignant than all the loud
threats and accusations.
Those three sentences -- they were reported by the
Chicago's Tribune's Flynn McRoberts at the end of a story on
the tensions in Decatur -- were spoken by a
16-year-old high school junior named Robert Ryan.
The boy, like all of Decatur's 3,000 high school
students, had not attended a full day of classes in
more than a week.
"I've been missing too much school," Ryan said. "I'm
starting to forget everything. My main problem is
U.S. history -- the Constitution and stuff like that."
His voice is a reminder that there are interested
parties other than Rev. Jackson, than the expelled
students who took part in the stadium fight, than the
school board, than the county prosecutor. To watch
and read the news reports, you'd think the people
just listed were the only ones with a stake.
But what of the students in Decatur who had
nothing to do with the fight -- students who perhaps
weren't even at the football game? What about the
students who simply want to go to school and try to
learn? Students who--imagine this--may have been
at the library the night of the stadium fight?
You'd think, from all the coverage of Jackson's
showdown, that those students -- the students who
are not a part of the anger, who just go to school --
are irrelevant. But an argument can be made that
they have more relevance than anyone -- that it is
their rights, more than anyone else's, that have been
They were kept out of school for far too long --
because of something they had nothing to do with.
And now that they are back, their entire school year
has been defined by this. This won't be the year they
remember for a teacher who helped them think
about something in a new way, or for a great book
they read that moved them, or for a game the
basketball team won. This will forever be the year
of the stadium fight, and all that followed.
"I've been missing too much school," Robert Ryan
said. "I'm starting to forget everything." Perhaps
Rev. Jackson truly believes that the school board
and the people of Decatur owe an apology to the
young men who brawled in the stands -- but a strong
case can be made that Rev. Jackson owes a
heartfelt apology to Robert Ryan, and the students
like him who wanted to go to school, and could not,
and were worried that they were falling behind in
Not that anyone should hold their breath waiting for
Jackson to apologize. He descended into foolishness
when he was confronted with the videotape of the
fight -- a tape he had never seen and, presumably,
was unaware of -- and, instead of admitting that he
had been misled by those who had characterized the
brawl in mild terms, began embarrassing himself by
trying to explain away the violence. No worse than a
hockey game, he said; the real violence is being
committed by the authorities who are charging the
brawlers with crimes, he said.
Jackson reached his zenith of absurdity late last
week when -- this is perfect, in our current America
-- he sued the school district on behalf of the young
men who fought in the stadium, asking in court that
each expelled student be given $5 million. Why?
Because, according to Jackson's lawsuit, when the
school board rebutted his public allegations about
what was being done to the expelled students by
pointing out certain facts about some of the students'
poor attendance records and third-year-freshman
status, the school administrators did so "for the
expressed purpose of putting out their point of view
in the controversy surrounding the expulsion of the
Thus, Jackson's suit contended, each of the students
who fought during the football game should be given
To use an apt analogy: You've got to pick your
fights. Jackson picked a loser -- and instead of
escalating his threats when the videotape surfaced,
he should have sternly and honestly said to those
who brought him to town: You owe me, and your
city, an apology.
You may think the two-year expulsions were
excessive -- maybe they were. But whomever you
blame in all of this, there is one point you cannot
The students who only wanted to go to school -- to
be students -- were guilty of nothing. This is not their
fault. Who will say "I'm sorry" to
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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