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Jena, Louisiana, population 3,000, is a town in Central Louisiana where racial tensions at the local high school have drawn national media attention. What started last year as an innocent question at a high school assembly ended up with six black students charged with attempted murder.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.

WADE GOODWYN: Like hundreds of other high schools across America, at Jena High School, white students sit by themselves and black students by themselves. At Jena, the white students sat under a big shade tree in the courtyard, while black students congregated near the auditorium. But last year, a few days into the first semester, a new kid, a freshman African-American asked the principal at an assembly if he, too, could sit under the tree. He was told he could sit anywhere he liked. But three white boys on the rodeo team, apparently, disagreed. And the next morning, there were three nooses hanging from the shade tree in the courtyard.

Mr. ANTHONY JACKSON (Teacher, Jena High School): I jokingly said to another teacher, one's for you, one's for me. Who's the other one for?

GOODWYN: Anthony Jackson is one of two black teachers at Jena High School. Jackson was standing next to the other one that day as they watched the nooses swaying in the tree. Many in Jena's black community wanted the white boys expelled. But the white superintendent and other school administrators investigated and they decided the nooses were a prank. Instead of expulsion or arrest, the three white boys got in-school suspension. Anthony Jackson says from the time he himself was a student, there has been a double standard.

Mr. JACKSON: Meaning, white students can do things and receive a slap on the hand, and you want to throw the book at blacks.

Mr. BILLY FOWLER (School Board Member): As far as racial problems, our community is no different from any other community.

GOODWYN: Billy Fowler is a member of the school board and one of the few leaders with the school administration or local law enforcement willing to talk to the media. The principal, the school superintendent and the district attorney all declined repeated calls for comment.

Mr. FOWLER: I'm appalled at outside announce that media coming in here painting us as the most racist community in the world. That is totally inaccurate and not true.

GOODWYN: At the high school, a few of the black athletes, the stars of the football team, took the lead in resisting, although there are conflicting reports. The day after the nooses were hung, they organized a silent protest under the tree. The reaction was immediate. The school summoned the police and the district attorney and the students were called to assembly. Black students on one side, whites the other.

Their district attorney, Reed Walters, threatened the students, saying he could be their friend or worst enemy. He lifted his fountain pen and said, quote, "With one stroke of this pen, I can make your life disappear." That evening, the black students told their parents that the D.A. was looking right at them. The D.A. denies that, and school board member Billy Fowler doesn't believe it either.

Mr. FOWLER: He said some pretty strong things, but I don't think he was directing it at anybody in particular. I think he just wanted people to calm it down.

GOODWYN: But the district attorney's statements did the opposite of calm things down. Some whites felt triumphant, blacks were resentful, fights began to break out at the high school.

(Soundbite of a radio show)

Mr. TONY BROWN (Radio talk show host): Good morning. It's time for the call-in talk show dedicated to keeping you informed.

GOODWYN: In nearby Alexandria, Tony Brown began reporting the Jena story on his radio show, which covers nearly the entire state.

Mr. BROWN: The situation down in Jena, Louisiana, which was sparked by hangman's noose by three white students who were slapped on the wrist…

GOODWYN: In Jena, the football team was having an unusually good year, and the black athletes were a major reason why. So while there were fights throughout the fall, nobody - black or white - wanted to take any action that would hurt the team. But when the season was over, so was the truce. In a devastating blow to a small town like Jena, somebody burned down Jena High School. Whites thought it was blacks who had done it, blacks thought just the opposite.

In a brown mobile home on the African-American side of town, 47-year-old Caseptla Bailey lives with her two sons, her mother, her niece and her young son.

Ms. CASEPTLA BAILEY: How are you doing?

GOODWYN: I'm Wade from National Public Radio.

Ms. BAILEY: Oh, okay.

GOODWYN: It all blew apart after the school was torched. On a Friday night, Caseptla's son, Robert Bailey, and a few black friends tried to enter a party of predominantly white students. Once Bailey got inside, he was attacked and beaten. The next day, tensions escalated at the Got To Go convenience store. Bailey and a white student, who had been at the party exchanged words. The white kid ran back to his truck and pulled out a pistol grip shotgun. Caseptla Bailey says her 16-year-old son recklessly ran after the white boy and wrestled him for the gun.

Ms. BAILEY: They had to come to a decision real quick, and the decision was either I'll fight and wrestle this from this person or either he's going to shoot me and kill me in the back.

GOODWYN: With help, Bailey eventually took the shotgun away. And after some scuffling, Bailey and his friends walked home with the weapon. And this is another sore point, because Robert Bailey was eventually charged with theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace. The white student who pulled the weapon was not charged at all.

Ms. BAILEY: Jena has always been a racist town, you know? We've understood that. We've already known this has been a racist town. This has been that way since I've lived here.

GOODWYN: The next Monday at school, a white student named Justin Barker was loudly bragging to friends in the hallway about how Robert Bailey had been whipped by a white man on Friday night. When Barker walked into the courtyard, he was attacked by black students, including some of the athletes who had led the protest against the noose hanging. The first punch knocked Barker out. He was kicked several times in the head. But the injuries turned out to be superficial. He was examined by doctors and released, even going out to a social function later that evening. The six black students, including Robert Bailey, were arrested and charged with aggravated assault. But District Attorney Reed Walters up the charges to attempted second-degree murder. That provoked a storm of black outrage and even many of the white leaders in Jena, like school board member Billy Fowler, think it's too much.

Mr. FOWLER: Well, I think it's safe to say that some punishment has not been passed out evenly and fairly. I think blacks may have gotten a little tougher discipline through the years. This - our town and community is not a bunch of bigots. They're Christian, law-abiding citizens that wouldn't mistreat anybody.

GOODWYN: But the black students and their families do feel mistreated. The first boy to go to court was Mychal Bell, the team's star running and defensive back. An all white jury found Mychal Bell guilty. He now faces up to 22 years in prison. The trials of the other five black students on attempted murder charges await. Over the weekend, Jena High School had the big shade tree in the courtyard chopped into firewood.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.

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