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Detroit Schoolgirl Rapes Test Nerves, City’s Response

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The rapists strike before dawn, while the sky is still a sore purple-gray and abandoned houses loom dark and derelict along the sleeping streets.

They prey on girls. On schoolgirls, teens, walking alone to class.

Tuesday night, police here arrested a man suspected in the rapes of six girls. “That makes us feel proud,” Assistant Police Chief Charles Wilson said. But then he acknowledged: At least one other rapist is still on the prowl.

A city on edge since September cannot yet rest easy.

And this indeed has been a city on edge.

For eight Detroit girls have been raped on their way to school this fall. More than two dozen others have reported assaults, and police have confirmed three attempted abductions.

School principals have taken to broadcasting warnings over their public address systems: Don’t walk alone. Don’t take shortcuts. Always wear shoes you can run in. City officials hand out safety tips for students: Avoid doorways and bushes. Walk away from the curb. Don’t get to school too early.

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Tuesday’s arrest of a 27-year-old suspect may well calm rattled students. Although police did not release his name, they said DNA tests linked him to three of the schoolgirl rapes, and they called him the No. 1 suspect in three others.

But the long wait for his arrest--the first rape was reported on the first day of school in September--has clearly taken its toll. The absentee rate for female students is up 12% this year. Girls who do go to school have been clutching whistles and scissors--or knives.

They’ve been scared.

Angry too. And frustrated.

For despite much publicity about the attacks, the community has been slow to respond. Students have blamed their neighbors for not caring. Parents have blamed the mayor for apathy. Many have blasted the Police Department for questioning 80-plus suspects without a major arrest until Tuesday. Even the school district has come under fire. And the bitter feelings may not be quickly healed, even by the welcomed arrest.

The problem, in a nutshell, has been this: When it came to keeping teenage girls safe, just about everyone expected everyone else to do more.

Detroit has a proud tradition of civic-minded activism. Up to 38,000 volunteers patrol each Halloween weekend to deter the traditional Devil’s Night arson. An annual spring cleanup nets an astounding 350,000 bags of trash, all collected by residents who dedicate a Saturday to tidying up their city.

So when school officials announced a meeting to organize early-morning “anti-rape” patrols, they rented an auditorium that could hold 1,000--and fretted they might not have enough room.

Just 75 volunteers showed up.

“There were all kinds of excuses. In the end, they turned out to be just excuses,” said a disillusioned Bernard Parker, deputy chief executive of the school district.

“We all assumed . . . people would come out big time,” added Glenn Oliver, the mayor’s community liaison. “We were disappointed.”

So were the students. Indignant and frightened, 2,000 kids walked out of school the week before Thanksgiving.

“We wanted to say enough was enough,” said Christian Dorsey, a senior who helped organize the protest. Added another participant: “That was the only way we could get the attention we needed.”

The demonstration--which Parker called the first student walkout in Detroit history--did succeed in shaking the city from complacency. A bit.

Mayor Dennis Archer, taking personal control of the “Safe Streets” campaign, ordered police to step up patrols. Then he had 287,000 letters mailed out and gave a televised speech asking citizens to surround students with “a wall of protection.” Anticipating a groundswell, Archer opened all 263 city schools on the same night last month for organizational meetings.

This time, nearly 4,500 people signed up. But compared to the turnout on Halloween weekend, the anti-rape patrols seemed feeble to many.

“It’s like people don’t care,” Ainslie Woodward, a father of two who patrols in his van each morning, said late last week. “That’s all I can say. A lot of people just don’t care.”

Many, of course, do care--but wonder why they have to show their concern by driving through bad neighborhoods, and at 6 a.m. to boot. “What is [the mayor] thinking of?” one citizen wrote the Detroit Free Press. “Does he want volunteers to pick up the garbage, repair the public lighting, fight the fires, staff the recreation facilities? What do the citizens pay taxes for?”

Others note with disgust that while city officials boast of three new downtown casinos, a new baseball stadium and new office towers, they have been unable to tear down hundreds of the rotting vacant buildings that pock block after block around many schools--and provide perfect harbor for criminals.

“Yes, the community should have stepped forward [with more patrols], but the community needs leadership,” said Ernest Johnson, a local activist who accuses the mayor of responding to the rapes too slowly.

In the mayor’s defense, his staffers say, he assumed the school district’s initial call for volunteers would be enough. Once it became clear that the response was lagging, Archer stepped in to mobilize the city.

He asked taxi drivers, utility crews and delivery workers to watch out for schoolchildren as they make their rounds. He told city employees to do the same; some now add an hour or more to their commute by taking surface streets instead of freeways and by circling rough neighborhoods.

In response to Archer’s prodding, the police reorganized shifts so more officers are out at 6 a.m. The department also sends two helicopters aloft each morning to sweep the city with enormous spotlights. Still, police say the volunteers have been vital--as a deterrent and also to boost students’ morale.

“It’s important for the kids to see that there are more people out on the streets for them,” Second Deputy Chief Paula Bridges said. Or, as the sign outside one Detroit high school proclaims: “It takes an entire village to protect our youth.”

Outside Denby High School on Detroit’s sagging east side, that village was beginning to mobilize one recent morning. Several cars cruised the ragged streets with city-issued yellow lights blinking on their hoods. Others circled with hazard lights flashing and fluorescent bumper stickers proclaiming the drivers to be Detroit’s “eyes and ears.”

Many neighborhood residents had turned on their porch lights, illuminating the sidewalks even before dawn dappled the sky with pink. And more and more parents were driving their kids to school instead of letting them walk.

“With all these people around,” Poinsettia Higginbotham, a mother of four, said approvingly, “nobody would be stupid enough to try anything.”

MacKenzie Eady, a sophomore in Winnie the Pooh earmuffs, agreed: “I felt really scared at first because the streets weren’t safe and they were doing nothing to help us,” she said. “Now they’re doing a little better.”

In addition to Tuesday’s arrest, police earlier this fall arrested a suspect in one rape. Still, with all the assaults and attacks that have been reported, they do not yet consider the case closed.

And students are well aware that their safety depends on the nearest patrols. That’s not a secure feeling.

As 16-year-old Jennifer Koutsimbas put it: “You don’t know what could happen when they stop looking.”


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