Grayling Elementary School, across from the former State Fair, has been the victim of scrappers. Thieves have torn out windows that had been put in by DPS three years before the school closed. (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)
Detroit— Christopher Kencik peers through slats of his rickety wooden fence as scrappers strip the nearby abandoned shell of a school.
There isn't much left to steal from Grayling Elementary School, in a block of mostly boarded-up homes near the Michigan State Fairgrounds.
"I've called the police, but they just let the guys go, and they go right back inside the school to rip it off," Kencik said. "I'm just sick of it."
His wife, Kelley, who called 911 as recently as two weeks ago, said she is discouraged.
"My safety is in jeopardy now that the school is wide open," she said. "Isn't somebody supposed to be responsible for keeping it secure?"
Detroit Public Schools is trying to protect the more than 70 closed buildings and has instituted tighter security at schools shuttered since Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb took over last year, spokesman Steven Wasko said.
The 59 schools closed under Bobb also were emptied of contents, making them less of a target to thieves and vandals. Electricity at the buildings can be left on to power lighting, security cameras and central alarm systems, Wasko said.
But schools closed before Bobb's administration remain a nagging problem for DPS.
"We definitely have an obligation, and it's a constant battle," Wasko said.
Closed in 2005 before the district tightened its security measures, Grayling is "a regular problem due to persistent thieves," he said.
The school is among those owned by DPS waiting to be sold or demolished. The buildings have attracted scrappers who steal copper and other materials they can easily sell.
The school district tries to discourage scrappers, spending about $800,000 for a contractor to board up 29 schools it closed last year. Under the contract with VPS Inc., the district pays $40,000 a year to have the buildings monitored. Another company installs and maintains security cameras.
But not even the 14-gauge steel covers on doors and windows of the most recently closed schools can stop scrappers.
Seasoned scrappers smart
Copper is bringing in about $4 a pound, and with the price of the metal increasing, an executive for the district's security company said the scrapping problem will get worse.
"They're all going into the schools for scrap, and I'd say about 40 percent of the vacant schools in Detroit have been hit really, really hard," said Timothy McMahon, director of operations for VPS, which has headquarters in Chicago. "We operate in 17 cities, and the scrapping problem in the Detroit schools is more organized and more aggressive than in any other city."
McMahon, who calls scrappers "urban miners," said they are sophisticated and know how to maneuver around security.
"They show up with a U-Haul truck at night and park it in back of a school," he said. "They have all sorts of sophisticated equipment, including blow torches, and they systematically dismantle the building. They're not just going in and tearing out windows, they're carefully taking them out to sell in one piece. These guys have got to know carpentry and other skills to do what they're doing. It's like a job. They show up at 9 p.m. and leave at 4 a.m."
DPS police, with about 120 officers and three dogs, are trying to make a dent in the thefts.
"There have been 30 break-ins of vacant schools since Aug. 15, and in 20 of those cases, arrests were made," said Craig Schwartz, executive deputy chief.
The department patrols the vacant schools, Wasko said.
But the officers also patrol schools still in use. "It's not possible over the course of every night to drive by every one of those buildings. Priorities are set," Wasko said.
Bobb made changes
Before Bobb arrived, schools were boarded up with less secure plywood, instead of metal protective covers. And in the case of several of these buildings, including the old Cass Tech, which closed in 2006, thieves tore through walls to steal wires and pipes, disturbing asbestos in the process.
The buildings closed since Bobb took over are in better repair and the district has had better luck selling and leasing them, Wasko said.
From March 2009 to August 2010, DPS secured $5.77 million through the sale and lease of buildings.
No district property had been sold or leased in the 12 months prior to Bobb taking office, Wasko said. But that does not reassure India Moore, 70, who lives two blocks from the vacant Crosman Alternative High School near Clairmont and the Lodge Freeway on Detroit's west side.
VPS security metal sheets cover doors and windows on the first level of the school, built in 1911, but about 10 windows on the upper level are broken out.
"If they're going to keep the buildings empty, the city and school district should have some idea of what to do with them other than become eyesores," Moore said.