East St. Louis has struggled with a negative image for over 100 years. From the so-called race riots of 1917 to a present day reputation for rampant poverty, violence, crime, corruption and hopelessness, ESL has, unfortunately, become infamous on a global scale.
And, most recently, East Boogie earned another dubious distinction in being named “the most dangerous city” in America by the National Council for Home Safety and Security, based upon violent crime statistics in approximately 3,500 towns/cities nationally.
So, in knowing this, I am always dismayed when a minority of ESL natives do (or say) things that give critics the ammunition to validate these labels as, somehow, justified.
Take, for instance, the recent Southwestern Conference Championship boys track meet held at East St. Louis Senior High School. In what should have been a showcase for ESL Flyer athletic prowess, athleticism and a gateway to, possibly, a State Championship appearance, chaos prevailed instead.
With the competition barely underway, a fight among spectators (including adults and students) broke out in the grandstand, then escalated, with some members of the East St. Louis track team joining in on the melee.
Security escorted participants from the stadium and the meet was subsequently cancelled for safety reasons, according to ESL athletics director Darren Sunkett.
As a result, ESLSchool District 189 cancelled the boy’s track season, which would eliminate their chances to compete for the state title. That’s unfortunate, because some members of the boys track team are seniors and could be denied potential track scholarship opportunities.
That same week students, frustrated with the decision, walked out of classes at ESL Senior High and marched to a rally at the ESL Board of Education, demanding a reversal of the district’s decision.
At press time ESL superintendent Arthur Culver, after reviewing footage of the skirmish, upheld his decision, only to be overruled by the Board of Education.
However, State Superintendent Tony Smith upheld Culver’s original decision, citing Culver’s concerns over safety and the potential for renewed tensions and/or violence at future meets. He has that authority, given that the district operates under a state consent decree, giving Smith final say in such matters.
Ideally, penalizing those students who were guilty and sparing those who were not, as well as pressing charges against adult participants, if identified, would have been the fairest possible solution. Punishing innocent members of the track team based upon a “guilt by association” philosophy is a bit heavy-handed and sends the wrong message to the track team.
At the same time, those who did participate need to learn the larger lesson that poor choices and actions have consequences. Better to learn that now, while they are young enough to rebound, than decades down the line; and better to be alive than the victim of retaliation at a subsequent track meet.
And to those who may have the opportunity to speak to student protestors and even participants in the grandstand drama, they must convey the message that the ESL community has an obligation not to play into the critics’ or detractors’ stereotypes of their city and should represent themselves and ESL in the best possible light.
If they don’t, then they’ll continue to earn their way onto every negative list, be the brunt of stereotypical jokes, racist innuendo and have a negative reputation which precedes them and overshadows all of the good that they may achieve.
So, the track season has ended for the ESL Flyers’ boys track team but, hopefully, this will be an eternal life lesson that will be the foundation for success in the lives of these young people for years to come.