Formerly troubled kid shows ‘what every child can become’

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Rev. Courtney Carson, left, coaches Antwon Rolling in 2014 while playing in an adults vs. teens game during a Big Kings Basketball meeting at the Salvation Army in Decatur, Ill. C. (Jim Bowling/Herald & Review via AP)

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He is the stone that the builders rejected.

The Prodigal Son.

The lost sheep who now is found.

Pick your parable – Rev. Courtney Carson offers living proof that teachers and school administrators should not give up on misbehaving children.


Eighteen years ago, the nation watched the Decatur School Board expel seven boys for a bleacher-clearing brawl at a football game.

On Tuesday, Decatur voters elected Rev. Carson, 34, to the school board that expelled him 18 years ago.

Not angry or vengeful, Carson showers gratitude on the mentors and community leaders who helped him turn his life around to become a force for good with Decatur’s youth.

The Donnybrook in Decatur was one of the most important stories I covered my first year at the Sun-Times. Plenty of townspeople, commentators and learned elders lectured back then that Rev. Jesse Jackson and the outside experts he brought to Decatur to question the school board’s judgment were all wrong.

It was the age of “Zero Tolerance” policies against school violence. Why was Jackson championing the rights of “bad kids” instead of protecting the “good kids” from them, they asked.

I asked Jackson at the time if he should write off the worst ring-leaders of the fight and narrow his crusade to reversing expulsions for the less culpable kids.

No, Jackson firmly responded. None of the students should be expelled, not even the ring-leaders.

Carson thanks God Jackson never gave up on him.

“I was one of the worst of those students,” Carson says. “I used to be afraid to say that.”

A 17-year-old 4th-year freshman who dealt drugs and would later do jail time for other infractions, Carson clearly was a troubled kid who needed the attention Jackson and others gave him to turn him around.

He graduated from Aurora University, was ordained a minister at Decatur’s Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, became site manager at the Decatur Urban League, and was named chaplain of the boys basketball team at Eisenhower High School – the school he was expelled from.

A Decatur Herald & Review video shows him energetically filling the students of Decatur with all the self-confidence and direction he so needed at their age.

This story can’t have seven happy endings. Carson has kept up with the other six boys, some leaders in their own homes, some still in prison. He writes to those still incarcerated every Friday.

“I’m not the exception to the rule – I’m the expectation of what every child can become, if given the love and direction,” Carson says.

Abdon Pallasch is a former Sun-Times reporter and the current director of communications for the Illinois state comptroller.

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