DETROIT (Talk Radio 1270) Many schoolchildren in Detroit have to walk to class through streets littered with abandoned homes and graffiti-ridden empty buildings. With limited busing, some kids have to walk more than a mile to get to school in the morning darkness — without streetlights.
Tired of waiting for the city to keep kids safe, Denby High School staff is organizing an effort to board up vacant buildings near the school.
“I’m actually angry that any individual that pays taxes would have to be faced with these type of conditions,” Denby High School Principal “Casey” Kenyetta Wilbourn said in an interview on the Charlie Langton Talk Radio 1270 morning show.
She, her students, and staff plan to get to work Monday boarding up empty buildings on Detroit’s east side to keep them from becoming havens for drug dealers and criminals.
“It’s going to take some time, it’s going to take some serious effort and some money … We have decided that we’re going to put our own money where our mouths are and we have a teacher at the building, his name is William Pointer, who has now decided he’s going to embark on an initiative to begin to board up the homes with students and some dedicated citizens.”
How bad is the problem? More than 1,000 people 24 years old and younger were assaulted on the city’s east side, where Denby is located, in 2011, 71 were raped, 200 were robbed, and eight were homicide victims, Langton said, adding, “It is a terrible situation.”
“I don’t think it’s the school district’s responsibility to actually address the blight in the community, however, the city of Detroit has that responsibility, but sadly enough they have not … It’s somewhat of an epidemic city-wide,” Wilbourn said.
Specifically, Wilbourn said students have been assaulted, approached by strange vehicles, truancy is high on some bad weather days because “some students are afraid to get up in the morning and walk in the dark.” And she understands where they’re coming from.
“I tell you, I’m a grown person and I know that I wouldn’t want to walk any distance in those types of surroundings,” Wilbourn said.
The principal carried a baseball bat when she first became the Denby principal, but said gang violence has calmed down since then, so she no longer feels it’s necessary.
“Denby is in the most violent crime area in the state,” Wilbourn said. “The blessing is there is an agreement and level of respect that is garnered relative to gang activity taking place in the building and on the premises … We don’t allow students to bring their gang affiliations into the building, and over the years they have come to respect that.”
Does she feel safe herself?
“I do feel safe, the concern is ‘Are the students safe?” Wilbourn said. “I’m driving to Denby by car, if I was faced with the challenge of walking then there would be certain levels of concern and a heightened awareness … The children, on the other hand, have no choice relative to the conditions they’re born in.”
Wilbourn has made strides since she came to Denby a few years ago. Today’s students have to wear uniforms, with girls in button downs and skirts, and boys in ties, shirts, pants and dress shoes. “Power comes with success and education, so they should look the part,” Wilbourn said.
Langton pointed out, though, that educational achievement is a tall order for many students who come from families just trying to survive. “They don’t know if they’ll have food that day, heat in their homes, etc., there are so many life problems,” Langton said.
“People talk about student achievement and test scores and a lot of responsibility is put on the school, but research says there is a definite connection between class and student achievement,” Wilbourn said, agreeing. “When you have so many barriers… We need to start creating the conditions for children that will foster that social, emotional and cognitive growth.”
The first step, as Denby staffers see it: Making sure students aren’t taking their lives in their hands just to get to class.