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Jackson May Force Arrests in Ill.

November 15, 1999

DECATUR, Ill. (AP) _ For more than half an hour, JoAnn Bohn watched as the Rev. Jesse Jackson led a river of people chanting and waving banners in support of six high school students who were expelled over a vicious brawl at a football game.

Bohn, a mother of two young children, said that while she agreed the teens had been treated unfairly, she was glad the school board had taken the fight seriously.

``It’s nice to know that if you send your own children to a football game, they’re going to be well-protected by a board that’s going to expel people,″ Bohn said from her front porch.

But more than 2,000 people at Sunday’s demonstration felt otherwise.

The protesters marched two miles along the streets of Decatur demanding that the two-year expulsions, already reduced to one school year, be cut further.

Jackson even said he was willing to go to jail over the issue unless it is resolved.

He promised to visit the schools Tuesday to demonstrate and force authorities to arrest him. He asked how many would be willing to join him in jail, and hundreds raised their hands.

``On Tuesday morning, we’re going to cross the line,″ he said. ``If Dr. (Martin Luther) King could do it in Birmingham ... and (Nelson) Mandela could do it in South Africa, we can do it in Decatur.″

Jackson also plans to hold a prayer vigil today outside MacArthur High School.

Decatur School Board President Jackie Goetter said Sunday night that she knew nothing about Jackson’s deadline or his threat of further demonstrations.

``I just hope he would think about that,″ she said. ``I just think it would be very unfortunate.″

The march was Jackson’s latest effort to draw attention to the expulsions.

``Let it be clear,″ Jackson said before the march began. ``We’ll be back again and again until our children are back in school.″

Participants, most of them arriving by bus from Chicago, carried signs reading ``Lift up, not lock out″ and ``Save the dream: Leave no child behind.″ The march began and ended with ``We Shall Overcome″ hanging in the air of a clear autumn day.

The six students were expelled after allegedly taking part in a brawl in the stands at a football game Sept. 17. A seventh withdrew from school during expulsion hearings. The students are black, but Jackson has said it was not a question of racism but whether the students _ now dubbed the ``Decatur Seven″ _ were treated fairly.

Jackson led a similar march Nov. 7, demanding that the students be returned to the classroom. Decatur high schools were closed the next two days.

In the meantime. Gov. George Ryan stepped in to negotiate an agreement. At his prodding _ and under a national spotlight _ the local school board voted to trim the expulsions to one school year and let the students attend alternative education programs.

But Jackson wants the students returned more quickly. He and state school Superintendent Glenn ``Max″ McGee have proposed creating a special panel to review the students’ conduct and grades in January; those that are doing well might be allowed back in the classroom then.

On Sunday, McGee indicated he was withdrawing his personal involvement in trying to negotiate a solution.

``We will let the local board and Rev. Jackson to work out the problems here,″ he said. ``I really think it’s a local issue at this point. As state superintendent, I tried and gave it my best effort on behalf of the students and the community.″

As the parade passed his home Sunday, Todd Walsh, a trucker, signaled his support with two thumbs up.

``It was just a fistfight,″ he said. ``They should have been punished, but not like that.″

About a dozen Ku Klux Klan members based in Indiana held a counter-demonstration at a Decatur park. A crowd of some 150 people watched, many cheering the Klan’s remarks.