Second of two parts | Part 1
• Complete series: Many Detroit school zones are danger zones
Valerie Russell remembers the day she helped rescue a 13-year-old girl from being raped in an abandoned garage.
She and three other volunteer patrollers were cruising in a Ford Flex a block from Osborn high on Detroit’s east side when they saw two people scuffling in a garage behind a vacant house. The garage, which had no door, faced a side street but stood just feet from the curb.
• Interactive map: 33,000 dangerous buildings threatening Detroit schoolchildren’s safety
• How to help: Learn how to patrol schools, keep kids safe
The girl saw the yellow light flashing on the patrol car and struggled desperately to get the volunteers’ attention.
“Help me! He’s trying to rape me,” she screamed. The patrollers opened the door of their vehicle, yelled, sounded the horn and called police. The commotion distracted the would-be rapist, allowing the girl to break free and run to the vehicle. She jumped into the backseat and into the arms of a patroller, hysterical. The attacker, who appeared to be in his early 20s, drove off in a nearby car.
It wasn’t the last time the patrol would step in to save a child.
Last school year the same patrol team found several shocked schoolchildren watching a man’s body burn in the street. Some were snapping pictures of it with their cell phones. The body was charred, blood oozing from the head. Not wanting the grisly scene to scar the children emotionally, the patrollers shooed away the students as police arrived to investigate.
Russell, 52, and her husband, Anthony Russell, 48, moved away from the Osborn neighborhood about six years ago, after a rock was hurled through their front window and a gunshot was fired in the direction of their adult son.
Since then, they have founded a group called MAN Network — Maintaining a Neighborhood. It supplies six volunteer patrol cars for the Osborn area every day.
“Our heart is here,” said Valerie Russell, executive director for MAN. “With the children.”
A smattering of volunteers has been helping patrol schools for years, but since Detroit announced its pilot Safe Routes program last year, targeting three high schools with high rates of neighborhood crime, the patrols now coordinate their efforts at the three schools: Denby and Osborn on the east side and Cody on the west side.
The volunteers meet monthly to strategize. The patrols also have received some financial support from the community.
The beefed-up effort also includes more help from Detroit police.
The department added 40 patrol cars citywide this school year to the 40 Detroit Public Schools cars already policing schools. Detroit police help with patrols after school, when most fights break out, said Roderick Grimes, the DPS police chief.
Even so, police are overmatched, so Grimes said he is grateful for the 50-60 volunteer patrollers who work at DPS schools.
MAN is one of three citizen groups that help patrol at the high schools targeted by the city for Safe Routes. Mayor Dave Bing also promised to demolish abandoned properties near those schools as part of the program.
The schools were chosen because of a high number of EMS calls and arrests involving young people in those areas. On any given day, two to eight volunteer patrols cars might be cruising the area around each of these schools, in addition to DPS and Detroit police.
The citizen patrols — all of which are funded and operated independently of the city — are credited with helping decrease the DPS crime rate by 13% since last year.
The patrollers use their own vehicles. They get grants to pay for equipment such as yellow patrol lights to place atop their cars and CB radios, and signs, T-shirts, jackets and caps that identify them as volunteer patrols. Some also get small stipends and gasoline cards.
Each patrol group trains its volunteers. DPS also offers training. The patrollers range from parents and grandparents of teens attending the schools to retirees who live in the areas.
MAN patrols Osborn, which is near three other schools. And it just started organizing a patrol around Denby this year.
Co-founder Anthony Russell is pastor of New Covenant of Peace church near Denby. His organization is funded by grants from the Skillman Foundation, a philanthropic organization that is funding neighborhood improvement projects in six areas.
MADE Men — Men Affirming Discipline and Education — also patrols the Osborn area. It was founded by Second Ebenezer Church in Detroit to be a citywide patrol after seven teens were shot in a single incident near Cody high in 2009. Since Safe Routes was launched, MADE Men coordinates its efforts with MAN.
Brothers on Patrol, funded by United Way for Southeastern Michigan, helps to secure the Cody area.
The volunteers watch over children who trudge through rubble and past dangerous buildings to get to school. They call DPS police or Detroit police when they spot trouble: a gang fight, a suspected crime or predators. Assaults, specifically fights, are most common.
DPS reported 310 assaults in the 2010-11 school year, according to the state’s Center for Educational Performance and Information.
“The fights get serious, with blood drawn and parents getting involved in fights,” Russell said.
The volunteers also report unsecured and dangerous properties around the schools to the city.
This school year, MAN, tired of waiting for the city, boarded up about 10 abandoned homes near Osborn. The houses had been boarded up before, but were reopened by thieves and vandals. The houses should be demolished, Russell said. But the process takes about five to seven months for privately owned buildings if money is available, according to the city’s Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department.
So MAN recruited 40 or so volunteers to board up the houses. They didn’t ask permission, search out the owners or care that they were trespassing.
“Sue me,” Russell said. “It’s too much process, too much red tape.”
MADE Men volunteers meet inside Osborn every day at 6:45 a.m. Two to three cars patrol the Osborn area before and after school. Volunteers also patrol on foot and run a mentorship program for male students on Wednesdays, said retired police officer James Booker, executive director for MADE Men.
Stop talking, step up
Booker said Detroiters can take simple steps to make school routes safe for children.
“We need the community to step up and stop talking about it and be about it,” he said. “We need residents to come out on their porch and be on the lookout. Put your porch lights on. It takes a village. It should be an effort community wide.”
The patrollers constantly are looking for more volunteers, especially men. So is DPS.
“These people are to be commended,” said Roy Roberts, emergency manager for DPS. “Fathers are there making sure there is a degree of safety. We need more. We’re begging.”
By helping reduce the threats children face on the streets, the patrollers are helping kids to learn, said Antionette Pearson, principal at the Osborn Upper School of Global Communications and Culture. The school is one of four small schools within Osborn high, each with its own principal. Currently, all upperclassmen attend the school where Pearson is principal.
Some kids skip early classes or arrive late to school to avoid traveling when it’s dark out, she said. The average DPS high school student misses more than 40 days of school, according to the Detroit Federation of Teachers.
“They miss their classes because they’re waiting until it lightens up or won’t go to tutoring after school because it gets dark,” Pearson said.
“It all impacts attendance, and you can’t learn if you’re not there.”
‘They’re on it’
Calvin Colbert, 63, a retiree and community activist, helps patrol Cody with Brothers on Patrol.
On a recent day, he comes across a disturbing scene:
A boy is beating a girl in the face and head with his fists over and over again in a parking lot behind Cody. She covers her head with her arms and tries to dodge between two cars. Her black T-shirt has the word “ACT” on the back in bold letters.
The boy chases her. Pow, pow, pow. His wild punches connect with the girl’s jaw and forehead.
Pow, swing, pow.
The attacker wears no shirt on this warm day, and wriggles his lean arms out of reach of students who try to break up the assault.
Just then, Colbert pulls up at the corner of Penrod and Dover in a minivan with a yellow patrol light on the roof. He grabs a CB to call for backup patrollers. His partner in the passenger seat calls police.
“C’mon,” a boy yells to the attacker. “They calling the people!”
Before police can grab the assailant, an unidentified woman in a white minivan turns the corner, collects him and speeds off with DPS police in pursuit. The attack is thwarted before the victim is seriously injured. Hair and clothing askew, she and a half dozen others scatter.
All the while, Colbert and his partner observe and report.
It is the second fight on the campus in ten minutes — the other, a fistfight between two boys, was broken up by school police on the front lawn.
“They do what they do and we do what we do,” Colbert said of the troublemakers. “And they know when our paths cross, we’re calling the police.”
Colbert is executive director of Detroit Impact, the nonprofit that operates Brothers on Patrol, which was founded in the 1990s.The patrols make kids feel like someone who cares is there for them, said Cody student Olissa Burnett, a sophomore who echoes the fear other girls have of walking by abandoned houses in the dark and being hounded by predatory men.
“Sometimes I walk in the street because it’s not any light on the sidewalk,” said Olissa, a Cody basketball player who has had to take the bus after school when it’s dark. “Cars stop and men ask if I need a ride … they be old enough to be my daddy.”
“I see the patrol all the time and I see DPS (police). They cruise up and down the blocks. They’re on it.”
On a typical day at Cody, two volunteer cars patrol an area that is about a half mile in each direction from the school. It’s not enough help, Colbert said.
He has to spend time often cruising by a fire-ravaged, block-long apartment complex two blocks from Cody. A bus stop sits right in front of it, so dozens of students get on and off the bus by the blight. The streetlight is busted, so the area is lit by a casino billboard in the early mornings.
Colbert once saw five elementary school students cut through the alley behind the charred structure, past piles of burned rubble, to get to their school bus stop. He said he fears what would happen if he’s not there to watch.
“I see girls walking in places I wouldn’t even walk,” he said. “They just go by faith.”
“The community has to get involved.”
‘Got to be aware’
Some students travel when no one is around to watch over them.
At 6:18 a.m. on a dark October morning, Anteisha Dorty walked four blocks to the bus stop alone. No street lamps lit her path on Harper in the Morningside neighborhood.
The main thoroughfare was as dark as a country road, except for traffic signals and headlights.
Headed to Denby to edit the school’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) news letter, she passed 11 empty houses and eight empty storefronts. She emerged from the shadows at her bus stop — an oasis lit by a Taco Bell sign at the corner of Harper and Whittier.
Transportation Riders United, an advocacy group that studied 4,000 bus routes last year, estimates that only half of the city’s buses arrive on time. Fortunately for her, the DDOT bus arrives on time for Anteisha’s seven-minute ride to school.
Anteisha, a junior, said she isn’t afraid as she steps off the bus into the pitch black morning at Denby, which is fringed by 37 vacant homes.
But she is walking pretty fast.
“You just got to be aware of your surroundings,” she said.
Jasmine Pratt, 18, also travels when no patrols are around, but she is somewhat luckier. She gets out of night school at 8:30 p.m. when it’s typically dark, but she benefits from the goodwill of a local business.
For part of her journey home one night, Jasmine sits on a plastic bench in the ProWash Coin Laundry near Denby High to wait for the bus.
Jasmine is one of 800 DPS students who are taking classes at night to earn a diploma. In the dark winter months, Denby dismisses night school an hour early for students’ safety.
Jasmine has a 1-year-old daughter, Anaya, so night classes best fit her schedule.
“This is not a choice, this is a priority for me,” Jasmine said.
As she stands up and peers through one of the laundromat’s huge windows to look for the bus, Jasmine dreads the half-mile walk she faces when she gets off the bus headed home at night. She treks by stretches of abandoned storefronts on Van Dyke and stretches where streetlights don’t work.
She said she has seen nothing to give her faith in city officials’ promises about demolishing abandoned buildings.
“They talk about all this change to give us hope, but then they don’t do what they say. They’re always talking about what they’re doing, how they’re helping. I just don’t see it.”
Hoping for the city
Jasmine said she wants to be a chef — to go to Schoolcraft College and study to be a chocolatier, then own her own restaurant.
“I want to build it here, in Detroit, support my people,” she said, as she spots the headlights of the bus through the laundromat window.
“You gon’ make it,” said a voice, as Jasmine bolts out the door. “She got her mind on the right track.”
It’s Brunzevel Simpson, the laundromat manager. He said he feels sorry for the handful of night school students who use the bus stop in front of the laundromat, so he lets them come in to keep warm and safe.
Jasmine is thankful to see someone who cares.
Dilapidated, abandoned buildings are already scary, but seem worse when it’s late and dark and there’s no help around, Jasmine said.
“It’s what you don’t see that scares you.”
Contact Chastity Pratt Dawsey: 313-223-4537 firstname.lastname@example.org
More Details: Anti-violence initiatives
Safe Routes is one of the four major initiatives developed by the City of Detroit to help prevent youth violence. The others are:
• Operation Safe Passage: An effort to fight truancy and develop in-school alternatives to suspensions and expulsions.
• Operation Cease Fire: An effort to stop the violent cycle of revenge and feuds among gangs and youthful offenders.
• Summer Strategy: An effort to expand summer employment and work readiness skills among youths.
The initiatives were developed as part of Detroit’s participation in the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention. The forum — launched in 2010 by the U.S. Department of Justice at the direction of President Barack Obama — is a network of communities and federal agencies that share information and help communities build strategies to prevent and reduce youth crime.
Besides Detroit, other cities participating in the program include Boston; Chicago; Memphis, Tenn.; Salinas, Calif., and San Jose, Calif.