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Belleville mayor says bus incident was a case of bullying, not a racial attack

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 17, 2009 - When police released a video of what they said was a racially motivated attack aboard a Belleville school bus on Monday, the incident became a national news item and the subject of internet bloggers. Never mind that what viewers thought they were seeing on the video wasn't entirely accurate.

Belleville police later backtracked, saying that the two black students at Belleville West High School socked the white victim because of where he sat on the bus, not his race. The two attackers have been suspended, along with the bus driver, and other students have been disciplined.

The initial impression of the incident, however incorrect, may turn out to be a lasting one for some who saw the video -- and that could be hard to change. Some parents who assailed the attack, for example, complained that their children shouldn't have been disciplined for cheering during the beating. And notwithstanding the police update about the cause of the attack, some bloggers wasted no time complaining of a double standard about race when whites are attacked by blacks.

The challenge of putting this genie of misinformation and mixed feelings back into the bottle has fallen on the shoulders of government, school and police officials in Belleville. They have spent part of the week fielding queries from reporters from across the nation, reassuring parents that their children are safe in the district and undertaking more intense programs to educate parents and students about the harm tolerating bullies.

Polarization Is An Issue

"Before everybody has the facts, we have a judgment," says Lynn Clapp, assistant superintendent of Belleville schools and head of the city's Human Relations Commission. "The problem we have now is that everybody's polarized. Whatever is said is filtered, based on your interest group, when what we need is a healing group."

He pointed to the parents who criticized the attack while absolving their own children of any blame.

"I think that's bad," he says, "because it means you're not holding all kids accountable."

By coincidence, Clapp, several public officials and community residents held a ceremony Wednesday night to honor 20 Belleville children for character traits, ranging from responsibility, to self-discipline to trustworthiness.

One of the children honored was Dominique Hill, 12, a 7th grader at Central Elementary School. He was there with his mother, Kima-Shai Rose, who said the bus incident had put a damper on the ceremony.

"The negative always seems to override the positive," she said as she and her son enjoyed refreshments following the ceremony. "When I read about this program in the newspaper, I noticed that reader comments at the bottom of the article talked about the bus incident. None of their comments had anything to do with the article or the character leadership program. It's unfortunate that anyone would take away what the kids in the character program are doing."

Mayor Promises Action

Other participants in the ceremony included Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert. In an interview earlier Wednesday, Eckert had said the city would take steps to discourage residents from allowing "radicals who read stories" about this week's bus attack from getting "carried away in the wrong direction."

Eckert said the city, police department and school officials will soon hold assemblies and communicate with parents and students in many ways about "character, good behavior and not tolerating bullies."

Plans for these events grew out of the attack itself and Belleville Police Capt. Don Sax's initial comment that the attack was racially motivated. By Tuesday, the department reversed itself and said the attack was a case of bullying.

Eckert said students aboard the bus told police that two students were involved in the attack.

"I can tell you preliminarily that the kids interviewed are not calling this a racial incident," Eckert said. "They are calling it an attack by two boys who have been picking on kids, regardless of color, for a long time. They've been bullies."

Eckert said Sax had "made a mistake. He let the media squeeze out an opinion (about the incident) instead of saying we don't have all the facts. He made a mistake, but he's normally a really good guy."

Earlier, Eckert had said, "I have to trust that (Police Chief William Clay) is going to appropriately investigate the events and follow up and deal with his employee."

Assistant Police Chief James Spargue said he had no knowledge that the chief would discipline Sax for the incident. Instead, Spargue said the discussions and plans are for assemblies and other activities that will focus on bullies and good conduct among students.

Eckert also suggested the media might have to share some of the blame.

"They can interview you for 30 minutes and take 10 seconds and make that the story." Although Sax had initially labeled the incident a racial attack, Eckert says, Sax may feel "that's not all of what I said."

In addition, Eckert say the incident is a cautionary tale of what can happen in the age of the internet. The video of the attack on the bus was posted with little context but with plenty of comments criticizing the way the city is handling the incident.

"We have to make sure people get all the facts and not just a little snapshot and run in the wrong direction with it," Eckert said. "In this day and age, some people are so connected with communicating that the minute something happens, they're already responding and jumping to conclusions."

He asks, "Did we learn something from this event? We're now talking among ourselves about our communication practices. We can always improve after this situation where two boys used bad judgment and hurt another kid."

Reaching out

Eckert said he, police and city officials met with a range of people Tuesday, including a representative from the local NAACP and a group called Racial Harmony, which he says has been hosting dialogue sessions in Belleville for about a decade. Representatives from these groups were not immediately available for comment.

The goal, Eckert says, is to keep the city moving in a positive direction. He noted that the city's image had been blemished years earlier by poor relations between police and some black residents.

"We're being very proactive," he says. "In the last eight years the city has worked hard to turn around (negative) impressions made by a few" that he said led to a "60 Minutes" report on allegations that some police mistreated blacks in Belleville.

"The days of  '60 Minutes' are gone," he says. "Our hiring policies are second to none. Our staff is diverse, and we have diversity training for our employees. This was an unfortunate incident. but we're going to work out way through it."

He added, "You can have people doing silly stupid things, but we have to make sure we educate people, and make sure that people don't get so riled up over behavior that they take everything in the wrong direction. We have to stay calm, communicate, be open and direct and that's what we've been doing in the last two days."

Besides working with schools, Eckert hopes to look at bus safety and appropriate conduct by school bus drivers, apparently in response to some claims that the bus driver didn't do enough to stop the attacks. The video does show that the driver ask indirectly that the students "cool it," and he later radioed for help. At least one student intervened to halt the attack.

Eckert said school, police and city officials had yet to decide on dates for school assemblies and other activities.

"We're working hard to get the message to parents and student that students are responsible for their behavior and they have to be good to one another, be good citizens. We've worked hard to be a community of character and get out the message that character matters. It's important to be responsible and respectful to each other."

School Superintendent Greg Moats says character counts, but he was disturbed by the Sax's judgment and initial comments.

"I think that the police officer who made the statement realizes that he jumped the gun," Moats says. "That's why we're very thorough before we release information."

Moats said the lesson from the incident included the need for better coordination of the way the school district, city government and police communicate.

"We've had a talk about how the incident was handled and how we can improve the way we communicate," Moats said.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.