Detroit Officials Grapple With Increase in School Shootings
For Detroit, this school year began with two terrible Fridays in a row.
The first came Oct. 11 when Gregory Allen, a 17-year-old student from Detroit’s Cody High School, walked into a McDonald’s restaurant near the school and fired a shotgun twice at point-blank range into a fist fight already raging in the midst of a lunchtime crowd of more than 100 Cody students.
Although no one was killed--Allen’s weapon was filled only with birdshot pellets--11 students were wounded. Prosecutors said Allen, who was sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison, started shooting because he was angry that a close friend was being beaten in the melee.
Then, a week later, immediately before half time at Murray-Wright High School’s homecoming football game on Oct. 18, four teen-agers in a Buick pulled up behind the grandstand at the inner-city school. Suddenly, one pulled out a shotgun and opened fire on the panicked crowd of 300. Before escaping in the car, he let loose three random blasts that left seven people, ages 13 to 20, wounded.
Three Plead Guilty
Three youths, including one 14 years old, have pleaded guilty in the case, while 17-year-old Damon Gamble, charged with the actual shootings, will go on trial as an adult on Thursday. Prosecutors say there was no clear motive.
All too often during this school year, the names of students from the Detroit Public Schools have been showing up on the Detroit Police Department’s blotter, both as victims and alleged felons.
On and off school grounds, shootings among the inner city’s teen-agers have reached crisis proportions. And worried students say guns have become a part of everyday life in high school hallways.
“A monumental problem exists--guns are really widespread in the schools,” says Krystal Miller, an 18-year-old senior and editor of the school newspaper at Mumford High School. “It’s almos1948279397carrying guns.”
‘Gives Them Status’
“I know three or four kids who bring guns to school every day,” adds Jay Norman, a 16-year-old Mumford junior. “They carry them for protection, or to avenge a fight, and it’s a power thing. They think it gives them status.”
With so many youths carrying guns, the results are tragically predictable.
According to statistics compiled by the Detroit Free Press from police reports, at least 88 youths age 16 and under have been shot in Detroit so far in 1986, including 12 who have been killed; in 1985, a total of 236 were shot and 28 were murdered.
To meet the growing threat, Detroit for more than two years has been conducting random weapons sweeps at its high schools, requiring all students to pass through metal detectors as they enter their school building in the morning. Experts say that while a number of big city school systems have experimented with metal detectors in the past, Detroit and New Orleans are the only cities where they are in use.
The searches in Detroit had been halted in recent months while the school system defended their legality in a court battle with the American Civil Liberties Union. But a federal court has dismissed the ACLU’s case and approved the city’s use of metal detectors under new guidelines designed to protect the constitutional rights of students.
Warnings to Parents
In April, the school board sent letters to parents warning that their children would be subject “to a search for dangerous weapons at any time.” Although no sweeps have been conducted since the letters went out, School Supt. Arthur Jefferson says he intends to resume the use of metal detectors before school finishes for the summer on Wednesday.
But ACLU attorney Deborah Gordon warns that the ACLU will renew its court challenge as soon as the searches are resumed. “We don’t feel they have reasonable cause to put everyone through detectors,” Gordon said. “We think it’s a different situation from an airport; you have some choice in whether or not you take an airplane trip, but students don’t have any choice about going to school, and so are forced to go through the detectors.”
Jefferson is undaunted, however. “If they want to challenge us again, they can be my guest,” he says. “We will continue weapons searches whenever we feel they are necessary.”
Not Gang Related
Often, the shootings in Detroit seem senseless. In fact, Detroit police say the shootings are not the result of rival gangs fighting for turf; police experts on youth crime here say youths are shooting each other simply for their expensive gym shoes or to settle minor arguments.
“We don’t really have a problem with organized gangs like Los Angeles or Chicago or New York,” says Inspector Julius Higdon, chief of Detroit’s special crime section, which handles juvenile crime in the inner city. “But we have some loose-knit groups of kids who name their groups after the brand names of shoes, like Adidas or Fila, and they shoot kids at bus stops for their shoes,” if they are wearing the brand adopted by the group, Higdon said.
Jefferson and other officials say Detroit is only one of many inner cities wrestling with the legal and logistical problems caused by weapons in the classroom.
In fact, big cities from Houston to Baltimore are starting to take stronger steps to deal with guns. Houston, which has suffered several school shootings this year, established a new center in May where disruptive students found with weapons will be assigned and kept out of the mainstream schools. Houston school officials have also said metal detectors will be available to principals who request them, but none have been used so far, a school spokeswoman said.
Baltimore, where two students have been shot to death on school grounds this year, set new guidelines in April prohibiting students from bringing knapsacks or outer coats (which might conceal weapons) into classrooms. While it rejected surveillance cameras and metal detectors, Baltimore does now require that students and faculty wear ID badges so outsiders can be kept out of school.
In Los Angeles, some secondary schools now have “closed campuses,” with only one entrance and exit during the day. School police officers are also stationed full time in high schools and in patrol cars around campuses, school spokesman Marty Estrin said. While Los Angeles expels students found with guns, “we haven’t gotten to the point where we use metal detectors,” he says.
Despite all of the precautions being taken, there is still little agreement among experts nationwide over whether school violence is worsening in America; reliable nationwide statistics are not available. Still, it seems clear that the increased ease with which guns are becoming available to teen-agers has worsened the climate of fear in many inner city schools.
“The real question to be asking is, are kids more fearful in schools than five years ago?” asks Bob Rubel, director of the National Alliance for Safe Schools, which is based in Austin, Tex. “The answer is not just yes, but hell yes.”
Students Admit Fear
In Detroit, students interviewed admit they are often afraid in school. “Simple fist fights no longer occur,” says Krystal Miller “If there is a fight, someone is going to pull out a gun.”
Adds Danyelle Wilkins, a 17-year-old Mumford senior, “I’ve seen kids go back to their locker to get a gun” in the middle of a hallway argument.
Even if such incidents do not result in shootings, Wilkins and others say they increase the level of student tension.
John Claybourne, a 17-year-old senior at Mumford, believes the only way to stop guns from getting into the schools would be to install pass-through metal detectors on a permanent basis. He says the school system’s current practice of using metal detectors on a random and infrequent basis has not been effective.
“I think it was a good idea to have metal detectors, but the way it’s done, it isn’t working,” Claybourne said. “It’s so dumb now,” he adds, because metal detectors are used infrequently, and students with guns simply stow their weapons in their cars until the detectors are removed.
One result of the gun crisis has been to turn young students like Miller and Claybourne, who are both planning to go on to college, into passionate advocates of law and order, and strong critics of the ACLU. They blame the court challenge brought by the civil rights group for forcing the school board to issue watered-down guidelines for weapons sweeps, making it difficult for administrators to deal effectively with the problem.
“The ACLU feels this violates our rights,” Miller said. “But until their children go to the Detroit public schools, and their children come home and tell them about fights where guns have been pulled out, then they should have no say in this matter whatsoever.”