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Decatur School Suit Opens

A hearing on a lawsuit filed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition over a group of expelled students continues Tuesday in Illinois.

On Monday, Decatur school officials defended their decision to expel six students, but admitted the two-year ousters were unprecedented for fighting and that no attempt was made to find out who struck the most serious blows.

The lawsuit contends district officials violated the students due process by lumping them as a group and not giving them a fair hearing before dishing out punishment.

"We are asking the judge to require they handle them on a case-by-case basis," Jackson said.

The students, all of them black, were disciplined for participating in a brawl in the stands at a Sept. 17 football game. Three also face criminal charges. Last month, Jackson led marches, prayer vigils and rallies and was even arrested during a school confrontation.

The case sparked a national debate over zero-tolerance policies on violence in schools, which Jackson says are unfair to students and tend to hit minorities especially hard.

U.S. District Judge Michael McCuskey has scheduled more testimony for Tuesday and Wednesday. He said he would issue a decision by Jan. 11, a week before the second semester begins for Decatur public schools.

In testimony Monday, Schools Superintendent Kenneth Arndt said the school board merely acted out of concern over the safety of others, although the only previous two-year expulsion was handed down against a student who brought a loaded gun to school. He also said no one tried to do a detailed analysis of a home video of the fight to find out what students did what during the melee.

"I know the board did the right thing. Public safety was truly of a concern. We did what we had to do," he told reporters outside the courthouse.

Lewis Myers, an attorney for the students, said the six were also denied their equal rights by a board that expelled 12 blacks out of a total of 13 expelled students last school year.

But Jackie Goetter, Decatur's school board president, denied race was a factor.

"We followed the same policy as we follow in every situation for a student's expulsion hearing. It wasn't a matter of racism," Goetter told reporters.

Michael Bruck, an attorney for the Decatur school board, said in an opening statement that two seniors among the expelled students could graduate with their classmates in June if they earn enough credits at an alternative school. Before Monday, school officials had never publicly expressed a willingness to allow the students to graduate on time.

Bruck also said the other four students could return to regular classes as early as this summer.

But Jackson wants the students eligible for reinstatement to regular schools as early as January if they have done well in alternative school, which they began attending Nov. 18.

Under pressure from Jackson anGov. George Ryan, district officials had agreed to cut the expulsions to one year and allow the students to enroll in alternative school immediately.