THE high-profile arrest of the Reverend Jesse Jackson as he protested against the treatment of black students involved in a high-school brawl has been widely portrayed as a racism row.
But Rev Jackson and other critics said the real target of their protests is unfair and inflexible penalties for minor misdeeds by young people, which are now being imposed by local authorities all over the country in response to school shootings. Only last week a 13-year-old girl was gunned down at school in New Mexico, allegedly by a 12-year-old pupil.
America is overreacting, the Rev Jackson said, and students are paying the price through so-called "zero-tolerance" punishments that throw them out of school for comparatively small infractions. "This madness must stop," he said.
The seven students were expelled for two years for taking part in a brawl in the stands at a high-school football game in Decatur, Illinois, in September. None was carrying a weapon.
One of the students has withdrawn from school; the suspensions for the others have been reduced to one year in response to pressure from Rev Jackson and the governor of Illinois, and they can enrol in an alternative school.
But Rev Jackson said this, too, is unacceptable- school administrators should be helping problem students not punishing them. "Group punishment is un-American," he said. "There must be some correlation between your time and your crime."
An Illinois senator has already moved to ban zero-tolerance in the state's schools.
Others point out that, contrary to widespread perception, American schools have become safer. Government statistics show that crime in schools has fallen from 155 crimes per year for every 1,000 students to 102 crimes.
But the local school board has stood by its zero-tolerance policy toward young offenders. "If the students or their parents feel the punishment was wrong or wish to challenge its severity, they should seek relief in court," said Jackie Goetter, the board president.
Some of the students already have. In protest at the public disclosure of the offenders' confidential academic records, they planned a civil suit for invasion of privacy.
Last week, the district superintendent said the boys' attendance record had been "horrible".
"They set them up to be diminished in the eyes of the public to rationalise and justify the two-year expulsion, and that is illegal," Rev Jackson said.