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A White Person's Meditation on the Jena 6 Students

By Kimberly Wilder  Posted by Ian Wilder (about the submitter)     Permalink
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I am a white woman. This article is my perspective on the Jena 6 Students and their plight.

In one of the progressive organizations that I belong to, we have been having heated discussions about the Jena 6 Students. Our first press release, and the majority reaction, includes agreement in our organization to join the chorus of voices demanding that all the charges against the students be dropped entirely. Though, there are a few people in our organization--a few white people--who have questioned that stance. And, I have stumbled across some progressive writers who have also questioned the correctness of asking that all charges be dropped against these 6 black students who beat up a fellow student.

The bottom line is that Mychal Bell and the other 5 students from Louisiana charged in this incident, have faced racism from the institutions around them: the school, the district attorney’s office, and even the media. So, the only proper response is to free Mychal Bell from jail immediately, and to deal with this entire situation in a school-based manner, as it should have been from the beginning. Mychal Bell was a 16-year-old dutifully attending school. As a student, the school and the government had a responsibility to treat him as someone with the potential to succeed and the potential to change any bad patterns.

I would ask that white people who may be “doubters” on the issue of dropping all the charges, study the situation more, and reflect more on the racism surrounding the issue. I feel strongly that the only proper role for white people in this situation is to either join the demand for all the charges to be dropped, or stand aside while others struggle to do.

Of course, as with any injustice labeled as “racism”, someone is going to proclaim that it is not truly based on racism. Race is a hard word to swallow, especially for white people, who unlike most black people in America, can sometimes go for whole days, weeks, months or even years, without having to acknowledge racism. Racism is scary to admit to. And, often hard to prove.

Since the Jena 6 students did do something wrong, and since that something included violence, it is easy for white peace activists and progressives to believe that the system is just running its course. It is easy to want to believe that there was no racism, because this time, it might appear the black young men involved actually “deserve” the punishment they are receiving from the criminal justice system.

Though, it is clear that the 6 black students did not receive fair justice. First of all, it is easy to see in the abstract, that black people cannot receive justice from our inherently white and inherently racist criminal justice system. When white defendants enter the system, they almost always have “peers”, not only as jurors, but nearly always as judges, attorneys, prosecutors, and even court officers. And, to the extent some of those characters in this story may be black, to be truthful, because of our system, even those black judges, attorneys or prosecutors probably answer to white supervisors.

Though, in addition to this underlying racism, that precludes any black person from receiving justice in our white, racist criminal justice system, there are also the very specific failings evident in this case. It is clear that at every juncture, the Jena 6 students were treated more harshly, and entirely differently, than the white students who hung the nooses, and even differently from other white students who beat black students up in the weeks leading up to this incident.

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Applying Education Law

One piece of logic which is missing from many people’s examination of the case is the whole body of education law. I work at an education advocacy center. Due to my experience there, I can see clearly the many junctures where this whole situation was handled in an absolutely unfair, negligent, and biased way by the school administrators and government people involved. Through the paradigm of education rights, law and processes, the whole Jena 6 saga - from nooses, to months of racial conflict that was not addressed properly, to the prosecution of the 6 black young men - was all handled entirely wrong and entirely biased.

I realize that it is a lot to call upon a casual observer and commentator on the Jena 6 Students' case to have a deep understanding of education law. But, I would say: If you believe you have a right to publicly assert that these children should face criminal charges, then you should have a responsibility to know something the law which exists, and these children’s rights under that law.

There are at least 3 federal laws, and 1 Louisiana law, which, if followed by the school system, would probably have stopped the whole Jena situation somewhere at (or maybe even before) the hanging of the nooses. If someone wants to assert that justice demands that Mychal Bell deserves some criminal charges because he did something wrong, then justice would have to admit that school administrators deserve criminal charges as well.

Louisiana State Law states: “Standard 5 of the Health Education Content Standards (2002) requires students to receive instruction in non-violent conflict resolution. RS 17:13.1 (1992) requires the State Department of Education to develop and implement minimum guidelines for a program on prevention of crime and disruptive behavior in public schools, which includes coordination of school safety programs and any other existing programs that address gang membership and violence.” A cursory study of the situation would show that there were not adequate prevention programs in the school, if nooses were hung. And, then, after the nooses were hung, the school did not manage in 3 months to apply non-violent conflict resolution and safety programs to stop the other events from happening.

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The Safe Schools Act of 1994 is a federal law which demands that “every school in America will be free of...violence and will offer a disciplined environment, conducive to learning, by ensuring that all schools are safe and free of violence.”

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is a federal law which includes various responsibilities that a school has to make sure that schools are free from bullying and violence. This law also asserts that, “Parents of children who have been the victims of a violent crime at school or who attend ‘persistently dangerous schools’—as determined by the state—will be offered school choice.”

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law which provides that “A free appropriate public education must be available to all children residing in the State between the ages of 3 and 21, inclusive, including children with disabilities who have been suspended or expelled from school...” None of the Jena 6 Students stopped being students because they harmed another student. None of the Jena 6 Students should have been denied an education, and their full rights under education law. Mychal Bell did not stop having his right to a free and appropriate education when he beat up another student. He should not have been placed in adult prison as a first step.

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