Bonne Willis, a Pershing High School assistant football coach, said the EAA helped push the gangs out of the school. (Clarence Tabb, Jr. / The Detroit News)
Detroit— Relatively few young people join gangs in Detroit. Yet their presence has a tremendous impact inside the city’s high schools.
K.C. Wilbourn saw that last spring when she became principal of Mumford High School.
Hallways were crowded with students at all hours of the day. Some gang members carried drugs, others weapons. Kids were jumping each other in school, sometimes five or six students attacking one.
Gang graffiti — visible from class windows — marked the neighborhood, Wilbourn said.
Today gang members still roam the historic school on the city’s northwest side, run by the state’s Education Achievement Authority. But, for the most part, order has returned.
Changes at Mumford and some of Detroit’s other state-run high schools — from beefed-up police patrols to a longer class day and more male educators — have led to a reduced gang presence, according to school leaders, athletic coaches and community leaders.
Administrators at Mumford say they adopted a zero-tolerance policy for misbehavior, truancy and violence. Students who showed up late for first hour were sent home — no exceptions. Police were called to remove students who became physical with peers or staff. Nonstudents attempting to loiter around school grounds were run off — literally by staff.
Wilbourn, who took over the school in April amid the chaos, challenges anyone to discern any gang members from the rest of the student body.
“If you come here today, you can’t tell,” she said.
Wilbourn says she used a Joe Clark method — referring to the storied inner-city principal who walked his school halls with a baseball bat — to send a clear message. She also reached out to the Detroit Public Schools Police Department and the Detroit Police Department.
“Kids weren’t going to disrupt what was going on in the building. We would use deliberate speed to crush that behavior,” Wilbourn said. “You cannot beat up another citizen and be able to walk home freely. We built strong relationships with DPS and Detroit Police, and immediately there was a presence.”
'Always will be gangs'
Police say Detroit’s gangs are affiliated with a particular neighborhood or block, and are involved with selling drugs or other criminal activity. Many are centered around the city’s public high schools, a veritable recruiting ground.
According to the Detroit Crime Commission, a nonprofit that works with law enforcement to help with the city’s crime problem, there are 2,500 known gang members among Detroit’s approximately 713,000 residents.
Andrew Arena, the commission director and a former FBI agent, is conducting a study for the commission and researching gang activity for the DPS Police Department, which serves both DPS and EAA schools.
“I don’t think you will ever eradicate gangs. There have been gangs, and there always will be gangs,” Arena said. “You are trying to control it and keep the other kids safe from it and knock it down as much as you can.”
Bonne Willis, an assistant football coach at Pershing High School, said since the EAA took over the school, there has been less violence and the gangs have been pushed out.
The EAA, formed in 2011 as a statewide system for schools performing in the bottom 5 percent in the state, operates six city high schools formerly in the DPS system.
Discipline and behavioral problems were rampant at EAA schools in their first year of operation last year. Data from the first five months of the 2012-13 year showed more than 5,000 discipline-related infractions across 15 school buildings, ranging from fights to truancy to gambling and disorderly conduct.
From mid-November through the end of January, about 4,000 infractions piled up, including 1,000 truancy cases, 986 disorderly conduct incidents, 63 drug possessions, 33 firearm possessions and 22 physical assaults against staff.
EAA staff said early data from the second half of the school year show a sharp reduction in the number of infractions at the high schools — 26 percent fewer — but were incomplete. Two schools, Southeastern and Central, filed no reports in the first three months of the school year.
Police met with school staff
Efforts to crack down on gangs began last year, EAA spokesman Terry Abbott said.
EAA officials started weekly meetings with DPS police and Prudential Security leadership, Abbott said. During the sessions, school and security officials reviewed information about potential problems and prepared to respond.
“Students either dramatically improved their behavior or, in the case of those students who were not coming to school to truly get an education, they left the school,” Abbott said.
Jimmie Macon, football coach at Central Collegiate Academy, said decades ago when Central had 1,200 students, there were more gang members and relatives of gang members.
In addition, there were more female teachers than male. Women, Macon said, are going to be reluctant to get involved and break up fights.
“Before, you had gambling inside the school bathrooms, smoking, small drug activity,” Macon said.
Now the school has 600 students, parents are more involved and half of the teachers are male. Students must enter through specific doors and show ID.
Donshell English, dean of students and head football coach at Mumford High, said principals have empowered staff to address the problems with gangs. Wilbourn gives the Mumford staff the autonomy to move students along in the hallways and keep them in class.
“Last year, we didn’t know who the gangs were. It was hard to get anything accomplished,” English said.
“Now everything can run smoother. I love it here. I feel like I’ve been liberated. I can mentor a kid properly and not be worried someone is going to say something,” he said.
Mumford student Dante Gardin said school is very different this year compared to last year.
“It was crazy last year. There were fights and stuff,” the 11th-grader said. “Nobody is fighting yet. Right now things are good.”