SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — 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 have disproportionately hit blacks too, 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 records shows the racial divide has only worsened since then:
- 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.
The proportion of blacks facing discipline has soared in all parts of the state even though the percentage of Illinois' black enrollment has steadily fallen in the past decade.
"You say some kids are educable and some are not," Jackson said last week. "You take the ones thought to be educable and put them in school and leave the rest of them to their own devices. This is happening more and more. We've given up on a large part of our children."
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.
State Rep. Marlow Colvin, D-Chicago, predicting a legislative response next spring, said the numbers show not "an ounce of objectivity in terms of how these policies are applied to children of color. The facts are overwhelming in terms of who's being targeted."
It matters little where in the state a child answers the bell. Whether it's a poor urban district, a rich suburban district, or a rural area, blacks are getting written up in proportions far exceeding their white classmates.
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 declined in downstate schools too, while black suspensions increased 37 percent.
The problem is obvious: kids out of class and on the street.
Students who are expelled are sometimes eligible to attend alternative schools. But lost class time can lead to dropouts, joblessness and prison, said Jeffrey Jordan, a University of Georgia professor who has studied discipline.
Skiba said a predominantly white teaching corps — 85 percent in Illinois, compared to 9 percent black — may be culturally mismatched with minority students.
He has found little difference in the numbers of whites and blacks suspended for fighting, but blacks are overwhelmingly punished for "noncompliance" and "defiance," more subjective transgressions that might be blamed on teachers misinterpreting student actions not meant to be disruptive or threatening.
The Illinois data that AP analyzed do not include the reason behind the punishment or who's meting it out.
Julie Woestehoff, director of the Chicago advocacy group Parents United for Responsible Education, said black boys are particularly likely to be labeled troublemakers. There's a "very serious problem with the school system and its ability to serve the needs of that population," she said.
But the issue is more complex than white authority picking on blacks. Jordan found in a study published in August that black teachers in a school district near Atlanta recommended discipline for black kids in larger proportions than white instructors.
Teachers, particularly new ones, want more training, Illinois Education Association spokesman Charles McBarron said. The IEA wants a mentoring program pairing veterans with rookies expanded throughout the state.
There are also too many failing students who tend to get in trouble more, said Rep. Esther Golar, a Chicago Democrat and chairwoman of the House Black Caucus.
"They don't fit in. They're not at the level they should be. There's a shame level," Golar said. "So what do they do best? Fight and get into all sorts of things."
And too few Chicago schools follow guidelines ensuring standard responses to problems, Golar said. A spokeswoman for the Chicago Public Schools did not return a phone message or e-mail seeking comment.
Colvin said members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus in recent weeks have begun discussing the racial gap and what lawmakers can do. The Illinois State Board of Education is scheduled to discuss school violence in December, a spokesman said.
State officials now face a situation that experts describe as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Minority students come to school expecting to be disciplined. When they are, it reinforces their attitude, which prompts teachers — both black and white — to label them problems.
Georgia's Jordan wonders whether the system is sending a message to some kids that they're expendable.
"So from their point of view, why bother?" he asked.