Guest Column

My 15 Minutes of Fame With Jesse and Company

by KENNETH M. ARNDT


Andy Warhol once observed that everyone receives 15 minutes of fame in a lifetime. I never imagined that one of my decisions as a school superintendent would lead me to my moment under the klieg lights, making me and my school district the lead story on network evening news for several days.

As the superintendent in Decatur, Ill., I served for three incredible weeks as genial adversary to the Rev. Jesse Jackson and hundreds of protesters who filled the streets of our city.

The story began in September, at an inter-city football game between two high school rivals. A fight broke out in the grandstands. This eventually would become the brawl seen and heard 'round the world. The fight among seven young men rolled through the bleachers, jeopardizing the health and safety of hundreds of spectators.

Extraordinary Accommodation
In the investigations that followed, our elected board of education faced some tough and painful decisions. The board had clear student behavior expectations, demanded of all students, and each student knew that fighting violated school rules.

The board voted to expel the students for two years because they fought each other and harmed innocent bystanders. The vote followed established guidelines for due process and resulted in individual verdicts for each young man. Previous expulsions had been handled by the board in similar ways, using an independent hearing officer to examine the facts and make a recommendation to me. I then made a recommendation to the board.

In this case, the board took an extraordinary step--abating the term of the expulsion after a six-month review if the students demonstrated they were serious about their education and were performing community service. This action was added to the expulsion after the board listened to community concerns about the harshness of the two-year penalty.

In short, the board held the students accountable for their own actions. The board also considered itself accountable to the taxpayers who elect board members and pay taxes to support the public schools. And the board felt a responsibility to uphold the rights and address the concerns of the other 11,280 students in the Decatur schools and the general public. The guiding principle was that our students must learn in an atmosphere free from fear and that parents and community residents must be able to attend a school event without undue concern for their personal safety.

Our community has zero tolerance for the irresponsible actions of a few when those actions endanger other people. The Decatur board shares the belief of most Americans that local schools should be operated by proper local control within the parameters of the state legislature.

Celebrity Criticism
The board made its decision based upon facts, using its best judgment and independent of the pressure and whims of public opinion.

But our decision brought the Rev. Jackson and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition to Decatur, and there were stormy days, with clouds that still linger in the courtrooms.

Clearly, most school board decisions on student disciplinary matters are not influenced by a home video that is played and replayed ad infinitum on national television. Most board decisions are not questioned by an array of national celebrities (who don’t have all the right information and certainly don’t understand school law).

Those who are unhappy with school board decisions use the courts, as they should, as the avenue of redress. Or they use the ballot box later to turn elected board members out of office.

But for a time in Decatur, strong-armed negotiating and massive public demonstrations were the way the protesters’ concerns were aired. And many of the demonstraters were people bussed into Decatur from other locations, to pump up the crowd size.

The effect was overwhelming. But our school board stood firm behind the principle of local control, respectfully disagreeing with the intervention by the state superintendent of schools and others from Springfield who threatened to overturn a duly constituted decision by a governing entity.

Today, all of our students are receiving an education. Coincidentally, student discipline infractions have dropped significantly in the several months since the uproar. The expelled students are enrolled in an alternative education program run by our regional office of education. The courts and the legislature continue to address other fallout.


Off-Beat Moments
While I sincerely hope your 15 minutes of fame are more pleasant and less stressful than mine, I have a few light-hearted suggestions and observations (I’d be pleased to share more serious advice on handling such situations with anyone who’s interested):

 

  • Keep your sense of humor.

     

    Despite the intensity of the issue, I found lots of whimsical moments. Consider this: How many school superintendents can say their governor came to a meeting in their community toting a box of donuts? How many of you have ever been served lunch by state troopers, who provided 40 Happy Meals from McDonald’s during a break in a day-long meeting with the governor and other state officials? And can you say that Peter Jennings of ABC News has informed the nation about your day at work?

     

  • Be calm in the face of microphones.

     

    You never realize how many news organizations exist until they all come calling at once. Speak to the news media calmly and when your answer is complete, stop talking.

    When things really got crazy in Decatur, I put on a red sweater and carried around a cup of coffee for effect at a news conference. Just be aware you may be dubbed the next "Mister Rogers."

     

  • Remember that members of the press are human, too.

     

    When reporters are finished interviewing you, reverse the tables and interview them. Ask for constructive suggestions on how you could interview better. Make them feel welcome. It’s better they like you than not.

     

  • People will notice your leadership abilities.

     

    A few weeks ago, I took my car in for servicing. The car dealer recognized me from all the times my face was in the papers and asked, "Could I interest you in an exciting new career in the automotive industry? We think you would make an excellent customer service representative."

     

  • Professional colleagues stand behind you.

     

    The nearly 3,000 letters of support, e-mails, faxes, cards and phone calls we received from all over the country offered us additional strength and encouragement. As a result, I always will make an effort to help others who endure similar challenges.

    Ken Arndt is superintendent of the Decatur Public Schools, 101 W. Cerro Gordo St., Decatur, IL 62523. E-mail: karndt@dps61.org

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