Over the years, Detroit residents have sadly become accustomed to hearing reports of teenagers shooting each other over trivial matters. However, the brutal murder of a star athlete and the injuries of two other students in a high school hallway last month shocked many citizens out of their complacency. Last week, parents, students, and educators gathered in schools across the city to express their united message: Stop the killings!
The residents of the city had finally reached their limit when it came to teenage violence in their schools and on their streets. They were tired of seeing teenagers bringing guns, knives, and other weapons to classes. Furthermore, some parents and teachers felt that the efforts made by city officials to address these problems were not enough and were coming too late.
On April 16, Chester Jackson Jr., a 17-year-old star athlete in football and track, became a statistic as he became the first student to be murdered in a Detroit public school. Witnesses reported that on that day, a 14-year-old student fired a .357 magnum pistol and chased Mr. Jackson through the halls of Murray-Wright High School while shocked students watched. The shots struck Mr. Jackson in the head, instantly killing him. Two other 18-year-old students, a boy and a girl, were injured. The police have charged the 14-year-old, who is currently held in the Wayne County Youth Home, with murder. As of late last week, the police had not yet disclosed the motive behind the boys actions.
The tragic scene at Murray-Wright High School initiated a series of unprecedented responses from schools and the community regarding teenage violence and the presence of weapons in schools. Mayor Coleman A. Young advocated for the resumption of widespread "sweep searches" of students and the installation of metal detectors at school entrances. These practices had been abandoned the previous year after a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. School officials took the uncommon step of canceling high school classes for two days to bring parents, students, teachers, and administrators together to discuss the issue of violence in schools. More than 21,000 parents attended by taking time off from work or household tasks. Over 20,000 students, approximately 40% of Detroits high school enrollment, joined them. Last Tuesday, the citys school board voted to establish an alternative school for students caught carrying weapons. Once transferred to the special school, these students would never be allowed to return to the regular school system. "We dont need any more Chester Jacksons to tell us that we have a problem in our community thats affecting our schools," stated George L. Vaughan, a school board member.
The issue of violence in Detroit is not a new one, according to city and school officials. Last year, the city had the highest murder rate in the nation, with slightly over 58 murders per 100,000 residents. Gun-control advocates in the city often point out that there are more guns than people in Detroit. The name "Motor City" has long been replaced with "Murder City." "Obviously, the violence in Detroit is unparalleled in any other city," stated Robert Trojanowicz, director of the school of criminal justice at Michigan State University. "While the murder rate has always been high for adults here, it is now increasing for juveniles."
Out of the 653 people who were killed in Detroit last year, 43 of them were under the age of 16, according to the Michigan State Police department.
Last week, students and others at Murray-Wright High School fondly remembered Mr. Jackson, the student who lost his life. "He had a great sense of humor," recalled a classmate in the 11th grade, Gary Horne. School officials described him as a "good student." It was precisely these "all-American" qualities in Mr. Jackson that heightened the sense of outrage and fear surrounding his death. "You could be innocent and get shot for no reason," remarked Demetrius Parker, a junior at the school.
The tragic incident has also sparked a renewed discussion about the use of metal detectors in Detroit schools, a debate that occurred almost two years ago. In an attempt to address the issue of weapons in schools, Detroit school officials implemented metal detectors in 1985 to screen students for guns and knives, as the presence of security guards and city police officers had proven to be ineffective. However, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenged this practice in court. Consequently, school officials were required to inform students in advance whenever a metal-detector search was planned. For the two searches conducted this year, warning signs were posted outside the school building. Marie Furcron, a spokesperson for the school district, expressed that this undermined the effectiveness of the searches.
Currently, there is growing support and demand from Mayor Young, parents, school officials, and even some students for the resumption of weapons searches with metal detectors. Demonstrating mothers outside Murray-Wright High School displayed signs that read: "A.C.L.U. Keep Out" and "A Childs Life Over Rights". School officials, who promised to carry out more assertive weapons searches, are seeking legal advice to determine the extent of their authority to conduct these searches.
Just like the police, who are unsure about the motive behind the 14-year-olds shooting of Mr. Jackson, school and community leaders find it equally perplexing why a small group of Detroit students feel the need to carry weapons. One possible reason, according to Mr. Trojanowicz, may be the inconsistent messages about guns and weapons that adults convey to Detroits children. On one hand, people in Detroit emphasize that guns harm others and are not an acceptable solution to problems. On the other hand, there is a belief that guns are necessary for self-protection, exemplified by Mayor Young repeatedly vetoing stricter gun-control measures despite citizens advocating for self-defense. Mr. Trojanowicz also highlighted that the problem is compounded by severe overcrowding in the states prisons and jails, which allows serious offenders to remain on the streets for too long. This situation exposes children to the reality that adults are getting away with serious crimes.
Similar contradictory messages may have been delivered during the special school assemblies held last week, observed Alan Hurwitz, the education director of New Detroit Inc., a group formed after the 1967 race riot to improve the citys quality of life. Hurwitz found it intriguing that the message to parents in some assemblies focused on safe storage of guns, rather than discouraging gun ownership altogether. Additionally, the schools have faced criticism for not strictly enforcing their own discipline policies. Parents, teachers, and community activists claim that students caught with weapons in the past were not always promptly suspended or expelled. Instead, some students were readmitted to their schools, sometimes against the objections of principals, or transferred to other schools. John Elliott, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, stated that central administration has not supported the efforts of strong principals. According to Elliott, the priority should be to protect the education of the majority of students and remove troublemakers.
School officials, however, insist that they have always been tough on such students. They point to a recent study by the National Coalition of Advocates for Students, which reveals that Detroit has the highest suspension rate among the largest school districts in the country. As of this school year, 200 students have already been expelled. During a press conference, Mr. Jefferson, the citys school superintendent, emphasized that they have been actively expelling young people and will continue to do so.
Alternative to Street Life
However, community leaders argue that special assemblies, alternative schools, and increased expulsions only tackle the surface-level issues in Detroits schools. They believe that the real issue lies in socioeconomic factors that are much larger than what the public schools can handle alone. Mr. Hurwitz of New Detroit states, "The conditions that led to the uprisings of the summer of 1967 havent changed much." In Detroit, 90% of public school students are black, and 84% of them come from families with low enough income to qualify for reduced-price school lunches. This region was severely affected by layoffs and factory closures in the automobile industry during the late 1970s. Consequently, crime thrives on some of the most challenging streets in the city, and drug use is prevalent, as it is in many large urban areas across the country. Mr. Hurwitz adds, "The economic foundation of the area has abandoned the city." Alongside this, the once-prosperous middle class has also left Detroit. The total school enrollment has decreased from 300,000 a decade ago to 185,000 this year, according to school officials.
Among those who remain in Detroit, many choose to send their children to private schools, mostly due to safety concerns. Mr. Hurwitz notes, "In many affluent neighborhoods, you have to navigate around all the private school buses picking up children in the morning." Families who cannot afford private school fees have sought alternative ways to remove their children from the citys schools. Officials in the neighboring suburb of Southfield discovered 160 students last fall who had falsified their addresses in an attempt to attend school there. Kenson Siver, a spokesperson for the school system, explains that the majority of these students were from Detroit.
In the next phase, Detroit residents assessed the school boards actions and the discussions held at special school assemblies, and began developing plans for the future. As part of these assemblies, parents at the citys 23 high schools were asked to sign pledges committing to ensuring their children do not carry weapons and becoming more involved in their educational activities. The response to this request was "absolutely tremendous," according to Mr. Jefferson. Parent groups also distributed cards asking parents to volunteer their time in schools. Moving forward, school officials will make an effort to reach out to parents who did not attend the assemblies, as Mr. Jefferson believes that their absence does not necessarily indicate a lack of caring. However, Mr. Elliot from the Detroit Federation of Teachers expresses doubt about the impact of the assemblies, stating that, for now, they should be seen as merely community relations. Some parents who attended the assemblies questioned whether school officials were only reaching out to those who already cared enough to take time off from work or household responsibilities to attend. Nevertheless, a few parents remained optimistic. Eugene White, who attended an assembly at Redford High School with his wife and 9th-grade son, stated, "I think theyre trying. Theyre making the attempt. You know, they dont have all the answers either."