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East St. Louis NAACP says punishment of students in Belleville bus incident may be too harsh

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 23, 2009 - An NAACP official said Tuesday that the punishment imposed on students involved in last week's school bus attack in Belleville was too harsh, and that the civil rights organization has asked its attorneys to review the case.

Johnny Scott, who heads the NAACP office in East St. Louis, assailed the Belleville School Board for imposing the harshest punishment possible against two students involved in the attack against a student at Belleville West High School. The two attackers were expelled for two school terms. Five other students were suspended for a week each for "inciting" the attackers, according to Belleville School Superintendent Greg Moats.

"We will have our attorneys look at this case and see what we can do to soften this punishment," said Scott. "I really don't agree with the severity of the discipline. We already have too many people uneducated, dropping out, and here we're going to force some more folks out of school."

The head of the Belleville School Board, Curt Highsmith, took issue with Scott's comments.

"I can tell you that we've never tolerated this kind of behavior and have always shown zero tolerance on fighting," Highsmith said. "The more severe the incident, the more punishment we deal out. We also take a student's history into account."

Scott also raised questions about what prompted the incident. Police initially called it a racial incident because the attackers were black and the victim was white. But along with Mayor Mark Eckert, they later called the incident a case of bullying. Scott said the students' ages would seem to undermine the bullying argument. The two expelled students were 14, while the white student was 17 and "apparently didn't require medical attention." He added that the attack may well have been triggered by the white student removing the books of one of the attackers from a school bus seat. "Some elbowing took place" before the attack, Scott said.

Superintendent Greg Moats said privacy laws forbade him to release ages of the students. He said he wasn't sure whether the student required hospital attention but added that the child's mother said he "suffered a concussion."

Scott said punishment may be just beginning for the expelled students. "There could have been more appropriate action than taking education away from those needing it the most. Now we have the state's attorney talking about coming in to prosecute. Where are we going with this? What are we doing here? At the same time, we have people dealing drugs and doing a number of illegal things throughout the community and they don't get hit that hard."

He also charged that the harsh punishment is occurring because "folks are angry and have been urged on by agitators. You have a crowd of people out there who'd just love to see them get the electric chair if necessary for this disorderly conduct, and that's just what it was."

Highsmith said public feelings had no bearing on the board's decisions.

"I don't think there was any more pressure on the board in this case than in any other expulsion," Highsmith said. "We always have people concerned about whether a decision was right or wrong. Everybody has an opinion, but we try not to let those things influence us. While we listen to what others say, we try not to let that affect how we handle each situation."

Highsmith called the board's action "round one" of what might turn into several steps to address violence and bullying. He said Mayor Mark Eckert was interested in public focus on those issues.

"The mayor wants to address it," Highsmith said. "The board has to address it because we need to allow kids to come to school without the fear of fights and intimidation."

But it remains unclear who will take the leadership and how many issues beyond the recent violence will be on the table.

"It's a community issue as several people said at the board meeting," Highsmith said. "We need to listen. What course this will take, I have no idea. It starts with people talking. That's what we have going now. That's a positive step."

Asked if city leaders and residents also might have discussions touching on race, Highsmith says, the dialogue "will cover bullying and civility between students. I can't see that race will come up. But if it does, we'll discuss it."

The Beacon tried repeatedly to reach Mayor Eckert for a response to Scott's allegations. Eckert had said last week that the city, police and school officials would hold community meetings to defuse the controversy and prevent "agitators" from exploiting it.

So far no such meetings appear to be planned. Last Friday, some school officials held a student assembly at Belleville West High School. Superintendent Moats said the message to kids there was "Do the right thing." He said the discussion didn't touch on race relations.

Asked about the mayor's promise of such meetings, Moats mentioned Tuesday night's town hall session as a possible forum for that issue. The mayor, Police Chief William Clay and some other officials were scheduled to attend that meeting.

But the meeting was sponsored by an arm of the Greater Belleville Chamber of Commerce, and a chamber spokesperson said all participants would be required to submit written questions. He added that any questions related to the bus incident would screened out because the session is supposed to focus mainly on economic development and other issues affecting the western end of Belleville.

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.