Detroit Student's Murder Provokes Angry Outcry

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DETROIT--For years, Detroit residents have grown sadly accustomed to--and emotionally numbed by--reports in the local media of teen-agers gunning each other down over matters as trivial as a refusal to hand over a fashionable item of clothing.

But last month, the senseless and gruesome murder of a star athlete and the wounding of two other students before horrified onlookers in a high-school hallway jolted many citizens from their complacency.

In gatherings in schools across the city last week, parents, students, and educators spoke out in one voice: Stop the killings!

They had had enough, city residents said, of teen-age violence in their schools and on their streets. They were tired of seeing teen-agers come to classes bearing guns, knives, and other weapons. And, some parents and teachers said, efforts by city officials to solve such problems were accomplishing too little, too late.

On April 16, Chester Jackson Jr., a 17-year-old standout in football and track, became a statistic--the first student to be murdered in a Detroit public school.

According to witnesses, shortly before noon that day, a 14-year-old student, firing a .357 magnum pistol, chased Mr. Jackson through the halls of Murray-Wright High School as stunned students looked on. His bullets struck Mr. Jackson in the head, killing him instantly. Two other 18-year-old onlookers--a boy and a girl--were injured.

Police have charged the 14-year-old, who is currently being held in the Wayne County Youth Home, with murder. As of late last week, they had not yet announced if they had determined the boy's motive.

The bloody scene at Murray-Wright set in motion a chain of unprecedented school and community responses to problems of teen-age violence and the presence of weapons in the city's schools:

  • Mayor Coleman A. Young called for the wide-scale resumption of "sweep searches''of students and the placement of metal detectors at school entrances--practices abandoned last year in the wake of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.
  • School officials took the unusual step of canceling high-school classes last Monday and Tuesday to bring parents, students, teachers, and administrators together to discuss the problem of violence in the schools. More than 21,000 parents took time off from work or home chores to attend. More than 20,000 students--roughly 40 percent of Detroit's high-school enrollment--accompanied them.
  • The city's school board voted last Tuesday to establish an alternative school for students who are caught carrying weapons in school. Once sent to the special school, school-board members vowed, students would never be allowed to return to the regular school system.

"We don't need any more Chester Jacksons to tell us we have a problem in our community that's spilling over into our schools,'' George L. Vaughan, a school-board member, said.

'Murder City'

The "problem'' in Detroit is not a new one, city and school officials said.

Last year, the city--with slightly more than 58 murders for every 100,000 residents--recorded the highest murder rate of any city in the nation. And, city gun-control advocates often point out, there are more guns than people in Detroit.

For many here, the name "Motor City'' has long since given way to "Murder City.''

"Obviously, the violence in Detroit is unparalleled in any other city,'' said Robert Trojanowicz, director of the school of criminal justice at Michigan State University. "But, while the murder rate has always been high for adults here, now it's getting increasingly higher for juveniles.''

Of the 653 people who were killed in Detroit last year, 43 were under age 16, according to the Michigan State Police department.

'All-American Boy'

Students and others at Murray-Wright last week spoke fondly of Mr. Jackson, the slain student.

"He loved to crack jokes,'' recalled an 11th-grade classmate, Gary Horne.

School officials said he was "a pretty good student.''

Others at the school said it was precisely such "all-American'' qualities in Mr. Jackson that helped to heighten the sense of outrage and fear at his death.

"You could be innocent and get shot over nothing,'' remarked Demetrius Parker, a junior at the school.

At the special assemblies at other schools, morticians, ministers, students, and parents told of their own personal encounters with violence and death among the city's children.

Rodney Robinson, a 9th grader at Redford High School, said he was standing in his school's gym one morning in January when two boys began to argue over a coat. Then, he watched as the younger boy, a 15-year-old classmate, pulled out a gun and shot and wounded the other student.

"Sure, I get scared,'' said Mr. Robinson, a quiet, soft-spoken youngster. "I try to steer clear of it.''

With such incidents and the shooting of Mr. Jackson, school and community officials said, the violence has crossed a new line. It has moved from the surrounding neighborhoods and into the schools.

"School is supposed to be a sanctuary,'' said Arthur Jefferson, the city's school superintendent. "It should be a place where teaching and learning occur. It should not be a place where students are fearful.''

Added Chester Rogers, the principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School, "When crime gets into the schools, and you can't send your baby sons and daughters to a school where they should be safe, it's time to take action.''

Weapons Sweeps

The tragedy has also re-ignited a debate that raged in the Detroit schools nearly two years ago over the use of metal detectors in the schools. (See Education Week, January 8, 1986.)

Frustrated that the presence of both security guards and city police officers in the schools had done little to stem the flow of weapons, Detroit school officials began using metal detectors in 1985 to screen students for guns and knives. The Detroit chapter of the A.C.L.U., however, challenged the practice in court.

As a result, school officials said, they were forced to notify students before a metal-detector search took place. During the two searches that have occurred so far this year, school officials posted warning signs outside the school building.

"It kind of took the teeth out of it,'' said Marie Furcron, a spokesman for the school district.

Now, however, calls for a resumption of searches with metal detectors are coming from Mayor Young, parents, school officials, and even some students. Mothers demonstrating outside of Murray-Wright High School last week carried signs that read: "A.C.L.U. Keep Out'' and "A Child's Life Over Rights.''

And school officials, having pledged last week to conduct "more aggressive'' weapons searches, said they are consulting with lawyers to determine just how "aggressive'' they can be.

'Mixed Messages'

Just as police do not know what prompted the 14-year-old to shoot Mr. Jackson, school and community leaders said the reasons why a small group of Detroit students feel the need to be armed are equally as baffling.

One reason, Mr. Trojanowicz theorized, may be that adults send mixed messages about guns and other weapons to Detroit's children.

"On the one hand, people in Detroit are saying that guns hurt people and are an unacceptable alternative to problem-solving,'' he noted. "On the other hand, we're saying we need our guns for self-protection.''

Citing citizens' need for self-defense, Mayor Young, for example, has repeatedly vetoed tougher gun-control measures passed by the city council, Mr. Trojanowicz said.

Severe overcrowding in the state's prisons and jails contributes to the problem as well, he added.

"The serious predators are not extracted from the street quickly enough or long enough,'' he said. "Kids see that adults are literally getting away with murder.''

Similar contradictory messages may have been conveyed during the special school assemblies held last week, noted Alan Hurwitz, education director of New Detroit Inc., a group formed after Detroit's 1967 race riot to try to improve the quality of life in the city.

"I thought it was interesting that the message to parents at some of the assemblies was: 'Keep your guns locked up,''' he said. "The message was not: 'Don't have guns.'''

Likewise, the schools have also been criticized for not rigidly enforcing their own discipline codes. Parents, teachers, and community activists said students who were caught with weapons in school in the past were not always suspended or expelled swiftly.

Instead, they said, such students were often readmitted to their schools--sometimes over the objections of their principals--or transferred to other schools.

"We have four or five strong principals here, and I think the central administration has not been supportive of them,'' said John Elliott, the president of the 11,500-member Detroit Federation of Teachers.

"The bottom line is: You've got to get them out of there,'' Mr. Elliott said. "If you've got to make a choice between educating 30 other kids and this one thug, the thug has got to go.''

School officials maintain, however, that they have tried to be "tough all along'' on such students.

As proof, they point to a recent study by the National Coalition of Advocates for Students that found that Detroit has the highest suspension rate among the nation's largest school districts. So far this school year, 200 students have been expelled from the city's schools, officials note.

"We've been expelling young people all along, and we will continue to do so,'' Mr. Jefferson, the city's school superintendent, said during a press conference last week.

Alternative to the Streets

The dilemma for school officials has been that many of the expelled students wind up on the streets, where opportunities for their future are few and opportunities to get in trouble abound.

"We don't believe we can afford to write them off like that,'' said Mary Blackmon, vice president of the city school board.

For that reason, the school board, in a 10-to-1 vote, decided last week to create an alternative school for students who are caught with weapons. The new school may be in operation by the start of school next fall, they said.

But special assemblies, alternative schools, and more frequent expulsions only address the symptoms of the problem in Detroit's schools, according to community leaders. The real problem, they say, is socioeconomic, and is much too big for the public schools to solve on their own.

"The conditions that gave rise to the uprisings of the summer of 1967 haven't changed a lot,'' Mr. Hurwitz of New Detroit said.

Ninety percent of Detroit's public-school students are black, and 84 percent of them come from families poor enough to qualify for reduced-price school lunches. They live in a region that was hard hit by layoffs and factory closings in the automobile industry in the late 1970's.

As a result, crime prospers on some of the city's toughest streets. Drug use is rampant, as it is in many of the nation's large urban cities.

"The economic lifeblood of the area has abandoned the city,'' Mr. Hurwitz said.

The city's once-thriving middle class has abandoned Detroit as well. The total school enrollment has shrunk from 300,000 10 years ago to 185,000 this year, school officials said.

Of those who remain, many opt to send their children to private schools, often citing concern over safety as the primary reason.

"In many of the more substantial neighborhoods here, you've got to maneuver to get around all the private-school buses picking up kids in the morning,'' Mr. Hurwitz said.

Families who cannot afford private-school tuitions have tried other means of removing their children from the city's schools.

School officials in Southfield, an adjacent suburb, said they discovered 160 students last fall who had falsified their addresses in an effort to attend school there. The majority of those students, according to Kenson Siver, a spokesman for that school system, were from Detroit.

Next Phase

Late last week, Detroit residents took stock of the school board's actions and the discussions at the special school assemblies, and started drafting plans for the future.

As part of the assemblies, parents at the 23 high schools in the city were asked to sign page-long pledges that asked them to make sure that their children did not leave the house with weapons, and to become more involved in all of their children's educational activities.

The response, Mr. Jefferson said, "was absolutely tremendous.''

Parent groups also circulated cards asking parents to volunteer their time in the schools.

In the days ahead, Mr. Jefferson said, school officials would also try to get in touch with the parents who did not attend.

"I'm not operating on the assumption that those parents who didn't come don't care,'' he said.

However, Mr. Elliot of the Detroit Federation of Teachers expressed skepticism over the impact of the assemblies. "For the moment,'' he said, "this has to be regarded as just community relations.''

And some parents who attended the assemblies wondered if school officials were not "preaching to the choir'' by talking to the parents who cared enough to take time off from work or home duties to attend.

But at least a few parents appeared more optimistic.

"I think they're trying. They're making the attempt,'' said Eugene White, who came to an assembly at Redford High School with his wife, Vivian, and his 9th-grade son. "You know, they don't have all the answers either.''

Vol. 06, Issue 32

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