Detroit works to break cycle of school shootings
Students at Murray-Wright High School have been showing up to class in T-shirts this week emblazoned with the initials: BLVD - Brotherly Love, Violence is Death. The students at this inner-city school have good reason to think about violence. On April 16, a 14-year-old student, described as a violent troublemaker, ran through the halls firing a .357 magnum at star football player Chester Jackson. The 17-year-old Jackson was killed, while two other students were wounded in the attack.
``I can't understand it. He didn't agitate,'' says Latrice Neal, a 15-year-old girlfriend of Jackson's. ``The whole thing is so unreal to me.''
The situation seems unreal to many Detroiters, but the statistics paint a grim picture: since the beginning of the year, at least 11 students of high school age or younger have been killed by gunfire in Detroit. At least 105 have been wounded - including three shot and wounded this week alone.
Most of the violence takes place on the streets, where it frequently erupts over the outcome of basketball games and petty arguments. In one case earlier this year, a youngster was gunned down when he refused to give his silk shirt to another teen-ager. Police say it has become common for young hoods to steal expensive shirts, sneakers, and jackets at gunpoint.
The Jackson murder stood out because it drove home the fear that many students are not limiting their violence to the streets but are taking weapons to class along with their textbooks and pens.
``I'm afraid to come to school. I'm real scared that something could happen to me,'' said Tanya Rucker, a sophomore at Mumford High School.
On Monday and Tuesday, the board of education canceled regular classes to hold a series of rallies to discuss the epidemic of violence that has gripped the city. And it was a mixture of fear, concern, frustration, and even panic that drew an estimated 50,000 Detroit students, parents, and community leaders together to try to find the answer to a riddle nobody fully understands: Why are Detroit teen-agers becoming so violent?
``We don't sell weapons to our students in our bookstore,'' said Robin Oden, principal at Mumford High, on Detroit's north side. ``They bring those weapons from home or they [buy] them on the street.''
Dr. Oden said he was pleased by the turnout at the Mumford rallies, which he says have helped ``sensitize'' the community to the very real nature of the crisis, but he admitted that may not be enough.
``This is reflective of a general trend toward violence in our city's neighborhoods,'' said Garret Payne, a psychologist who works with the board of education, and who attended a number of the school rallies to try to understand what is happening in the community. ``Kids are living in a very hostile environment.''
Police officials admit violence is by no means limited to Detroit public schools. The city has the nation's highest homicide rate: 58 for every 100,000 residents. During the first three months of the year, 168 people were murdered, an increase of 20 percent over 1986. In all of last year, Detroit recorded 646 homicides.
Yet it is the wounding and murders of Detroit's children that has begun to move the city to action. ``We've got to defuse the present [violent] value system and instill a new, more peaceful one,'' said the Rev. S. Leon Whitney, a longtime civil rights activist, and pastor of the New Prospect Baptist Church.
But solutions like that take time, and in a city with a high teen-age pregnancy rate, where nearly half the city is on some form of government assistance, where jobs for the young are scarce, and where drugs like crack - a potent form of cocaine - are epidemic, few say they believe crime and violence can simply be talked away.
In the meantime, parents and school officials are demanding that more concrete steps be taken.
``We want to have more staff in the halls - teachers, counselors and administrators,'' said Eloise Anderson, principal at Murray-Wright.
At many of the school rallies, parents were also asked to volunteer their time to join the hall patrols.
``I want to see guards and metal detectors at every door of this school,'' said Gloria Finley, the mother of two Mumford High students. She says she is so worried about violence that she insists upon driving her two teen-agers to school each morning, and she picks them up in the afternoon before going to her second-shift job at the Ford Motor Company.
School officials say that if they can find the money, they will probably place metal detectors at the doors to the city's high schools. They would also like to resume making surprise raids in which police or school guards would search students and their lockers for contraband.
The debate over those raids has been raging for several years. In 1985, they were voluntarily halted when the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to take the school board to court, claiming the searches violated students' constitutional rights.
The school board has decided to crack down hard on violent students. Earlier this week, it announced that any teen-ager caught with a weapon woul be expelled from school. Eventually, that student could be readmitted, but only into a special school for troublemakers - which the city has yet to establish.
Though many students and parents say they are pleased by the increased awareness of the problem of violence in public schools, many question whether any real answers will come from this week's rallies.
Many parents noted that this is not the first time school violence has become a matter of citywide debate and concern. Two years ago, a local community organization called New Detroit held a series of forums on the topic. But the gunshots continued to ring out.
``They'll put in the metal detectors in here, or start those searches, but two weeks later, they'll forget all about it until something happens again,'' complains Murray-Wright student Angela Smith.