Concern over Protecting School Employees after Teacher Robbed

March 3, 2006
Robber was able to sneak inside Detroit elementary school, rob teacher before class

Mar. 2--She had barely stepped inside Owen Elementary School on Detroit's west side Wednesday morning when a thief with a gun took her purse.

He'd waited for her inside the school, where she thought she would spend the next hour preparing for her students to arrive. Instead, she spent that time talking to police.

The 59-year-old teacher became the latest target of an armed robbery spree in Detroit on Wednesday: Since the academic year began in August, 31 people have been victimized on or near school property.

Last week, a janitor was shot at McMichael Elementary/Middle School. In December, a security guard was ordered to strip by a gunman outside Grant Elementary/Middle School, then robbed.

As community leaders, the Wayne County sheriff and Baptist ministers call for more security at city schools, parents, teachers and staff say they're scared.

"We are sitting ducks," said Ruby Johnson, a seventh-grade teacher at Marquette Elementary/Middle School on the city's east side. She was robbed at gunpoint at the school in June.

At a news conference at 2 p.m. today, district officials say they'll address the issue. Administrators and the district's police union are expected to announce a plan on how to handle crimes that so far this year have included armed robberies, car break-ins and a mother accused of stabbing two students at Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

The growing fear among school staff is not only that serious crime is increasing and staff members are being targeted, but that school officials and police are not doing enough to stop the violence.

"All of the government agencies are strapped for money, but the citizens don't want to hear that. They want to be protected," said Reverend David Murray, chairman of the school board's safety committee.

The committee is discussing whether the school district could pay off-duty police officers to beef up school patrols, he said. The group also is weighing Wayne County Sheriff Warren Evans' proposal to take over management of the Detroit Public Schools' Office of Public Safety and its $18-million budget.

The school system had 26 armed robberies in the 2002-03 school year, the most recent data available. School officials did not respond Wednesday to a month-old Freedom of Information Act request from the Free Press for new crime data. By law, the district was supposed to respond within five business days.

The spree in Detroit is worrying even young students.

"He might do it again tomorrow," second-grader Tiffany Lipsey said of the armed robber at Owen Elementary on Wednesday.

The school principal sent a letter home with students telling parents that from now on, no one will be allowed inside the building before 8:45 a.m. -- 15 minutes before classes start.

Debra Lipsey, Tiffany's mom, said the incident will make her more cautious when walking her daughter to school.

"I'm not going to carry a purse walking around here any more," she said.

And teachers like Johnson, who've been victims before, are taking matters into their own hands. She carries a hammer for protection.

"Nothing is getting done," she said of efforts to make schools safer. "It's going to take walking into a bloodbath. ... I have a hammer because I'm not going to have the indignity of standing out there in the cold with somebody telling me to strip naked."

Chanhdy Phommarath wasn't forced to strip, but he is the only victim to be shot in the string of armed robberies so far this year.

He stepped outside McMichael Elementary/Middle School in Detroit for a cigarette about 10:30 a.m. Friday. Two men, maybe 19 to 21 years old by Phommarath's estimates, ran onto the schoolyard from the street.

"They said they needed money," Phommarath said Wednesday from the living room of his Warren home. "They took my $50 and my cell phone. They shot me, and then they ran."

Phommarath was left with a bullet wound in his right thigh.

Now, he says he's worried about going back to work. He won't be taking any more smoking breaks -- he said he quit after the shooting.

"It's the neighborhoods that are dangerous," Phommarath said, adding more police patrols around schools would help.

Two shootings on or near high school grounds last semester led Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to deploy police to help patrol. Evans put 30 officers at troubled high schools for 30 days through the end of February .

And the Council of Baptist Pastors and Vicinity pledged last month to help recruit 2,000 volunteers to patrol the schools. They would be trained in the Detroit Public Schools Parent Academy, which has taught more than 300 parents to report suspicious incidents around schools.

The Detroit Public Schools' Office of Public Safety includes hundreds of unarmed security guards and 40 armed school police officers who patrol in school police cars.

Evans said Tuesday he could run the school district's public safety office more effectively.

Detroit Public Schools Superintendent William F. Coleman III has not acted on Evans' proposal because he wants to allow the newly elected school board to decide what to do. Evans met with school officials two weeks ago about his idea. They planned to meet again, the sheriff said.

Evans said he is frustrated because it appears that school officials do not want to collaborate with local law enforcement. He said if the board doesn't like his plan, it should hurry and come up with its own.

"Do something," he said.


Sheriff's proposal aims to improve safety in Detroit schools

Wayne County Sheriff Warren Evans said in February 2005 that he could take over the Detroit Public Schools' Office of Public Safety's $18-million budget and run it more effectively. Here's his plan:

* Make the 40 school police officers sworn sheriff's deputies, or replace school police with deputies.

* Tie the school district into the county's Field Services operation, which includes the child rescue task force, narcotics and the auto theft task force.

* Tie the school district into the county's Juvenile Offender Squad to identify disruptive and wanted students.

* Ensure that Drug Free School Zones are enforced.

* Enlist reserves to patrol special events.

* Support truancy officers and the school district's anti-bullying interventions and pursue grant funding.

Source: Wayne County Sheriff Warren Evans' Proposal to Improve School Safety and Building Security for Detroit Public Schools