DETROIT -- The Detroit Public Schools has cut about 100 security guards in the past 18 months, despite union pleas that crime was rising and forces were stretched too thin.
The cuts, which represent a 24 percent drop in staff, came largely because of the district's loss of students and a $200 million budget deficit.
Today marks the second day the city's Police Department -- grappling with its own financial problems -- will assist the district's staff at area schools to quell safety concerns after two shootings at high schools this week.
The school district has 344 security guards for 230 schools, down from a high of 450 guards during the 2003-04 school year, according to union and district officials. That year, CEO Kenneth Burnley added security staff. But those security officers were laid off at the end of that school year because of budget problems brought on in part by declining student enrollment.
At the time of the layoffs, union officials criticized the cuts, saying crime was on the rise in schools. But school officials say crime is down and that the cuts were needed to deal with last school year's $200 million deficit.
"We didn't have a choice," said school district spokesman Lekan Oguntoyinbo. "We cut in every area. We cut teachers. We were hamstrung by a $200 million budget gap."
They say they have added video cameras to help overcome the loss of security officers and that they have closed 28 schools, which means there is less area to cover. District staff couldn't say on Thursday how much money the security cuts saved.
But parents were upset by the cuts. "I don't think they should cut that," said Barbara Owens, who has witnessed fights outside Mackenzie High School while picking up her 16-year-old son. "They need more and need to do their job right."
Union officials say the staffing is inadequate.
"You've got to understand Detroit is, how shall we say, a very active system," said Joseph Valenti, president of the Teamsters Local 214 that represents the district's security guards. "Our officers have their hands full. I am concerned and our parents should be concerned. ... We should be over 400."
Charles Mitchell, head of the district's public safety office, maintains crime is down in the schools and that today's staffing is adequate.
"We are back to our normal strength," Mitchell said. "(Budget cuts are) the reality. We've designed our programs to deal with that."
Valenti and the Teamsters union sent a letter to Burnley in June 2004 claiming that crimes against staff and students were up dramatically. Valenti wouldn't comment on the source of those numbers Thursday.
All school districts report crime statistics to the state, but those numbers are generally criticized by experts as being underreported. Also, the state changed some reporting categories last year, making comparisons in the data unreliable.
Additional Detroit police officers visited district hotspots Thursday, after Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick called for beefed-up school security using the city's Police Department.
"When I see that, I see someone on my side," Desiree Turner said, referring to the Detroit police cruiser that was parked outside Durfee School when she picked up her two kids. "It was not wise to reduce security at all. When you put metal detector at the doors to replace humans and have no one to man them, you end up with children in the halls with nothing good to do."
Her son Steven said he likes school but admits he's sometimes frightened by the fights he sees and is constantly watching over his little brother on the playground.
But some experts say adding security isn't always the solution.
"The problem gets displaced and it goes somewhere else," said Mahesh Nalla, a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University.
The schools that have success in reducing crime use a broader approach that includes other aspects like peer mediation and mentoring, Nalla said.
Interim CEO William Coleman III echoed that theme earlier this week when he said the solution to the surge in violence will mean finding the cause of the incidents.
City officials won't say how many officers joined the district's existing security forces but said it won't cost more money because the officers are being taken from other assignments.
In addition to staff security guards, who don't carry guns and don't have the power to make arrests, the district has about 30 police officers on staff.
Kilpatrick wants Sheriff Warren Evans to take over security duties for the district, saying Evans could better connect the district with county resources, such as truancy programs. The newly elected school board will grapple with that issue when members take office next month. Some new board members have said they want to transform the district's security force into an independent police agency with added power.
Mitchell maintains that the inside of the schools are safe and that the problem is often outsiders. He said Evans' proposal is political.
"Warren Evans doesn't know diddly-squat about what happens in our schools," Mitchell said. "It's a power play for money and power."
The sheriff's office already handles security in the Highland Park district, with five school officers.
The pair of incidents began Monday: Two students were shot in the leg by a drive-by assailant as they walked home from Southeastern High School on the city's east side.
The next day, a student opened a side door at Central High School to allow a group of people in and one of the outsiders was shot in the arm in the school's vestibule.
Initially, Mitchell said the Central victim was an 18-year-old who did not attend school in the district. On Thursday, he said the victim was 14 years old and had been suspended from the district. That information couldn't be verified Thursday.
Also, a female janitor was stripped of her clothing and robbed Monday at Ronald Brown Academy.
Before this week, the last shooting in a Detroit school was January 2004, when a 19-year-old man entered Northern High School with a gun and shot a teenager six times in the leg, Mitchell said. The shooter was a student at another Detroit school.
<<The Detroit News -- 12/12/05>>