Despite recent crimes, school officials say Taft is safe

By: Jeremy Selweski | Woodward Talk | Published November 14, 2012

FERNDALE — The Taft Education Center has already seen a pair of violent crimes unfold on school property this year, but district officials insist that the school is safe for students, staff and the surrounding neighborhood.

Taft — an alternative high school located at 427 Allen Road, just north of Eight Mile Road — is home to Ferndale Public Schools’ new Digital Learning Center. However, the school has already experienced its fair share of troubles since making the switch to a digital alternative education program over the summer.

The most recent incident occurred Nov. 1, when a Taft student was arrested for attempting to attack another student with a sharp weapon. According to Police Chief Tim Collins, the crime occurred following an escalating series of squabbles between the suspect — 17-year-old Daune Hill — and the victim.

“They had been arguing back and forth for several days before this,” he said. “We believe they may have been fighting over a girl at school. This student (Hill) had apparently been threatening the other student about it.”

Hill confronted the victim at around 1 p.m. near the entrance to the school gym, Collins said. He allegedly made swiping motions at the victim with a knife or similar “edged weapon” and also had a metal padlock that he was brandishing as a weapon around one of his fingers.

A crowd of students gathered around them during the assault, Collins said. The Taft school resource officer arrived shortly after the fight had broken up and placed Hill under arrest. Ferndale police were later able to recover the padlock but not the sharp weapon, which Collins believes was passed off to another student once the fight ended.

Initial reports on the incident stated that Hill and the victim are members of rival gangs, which may have led to their dispute. Collins did not deny that gang violence was a possibility, but he downplayed its role in this particular case.

“This incident may have been gang-related,” he said, “but people need to understand that the gangs around here are not like what you see out in New York, L.A. and Chicago. They’re more like neighborhood affiliations than true gangs. I would say that the ‘gang’ part of this incident is really only secondary.”

The next day, Hill was arraigned in Ferndale 43rd District Court on charges of assault with a dangerous weapon: a four-year felony. Magistrate James Patrick Brennan set bond at $25,000 cash or surety, 10 percent. Hill then appeared for a pre-exam conference Nov. 8, where Judge Joe Longo scheduled a preliminary exam for 2 p.m. Dec. 6.

The assault occurred only a week after a massive fight that led to the arrest of six Taft students. The brawl broke out on the afternoon of Oct. 24 near the entrance to the building. The school resource officer was knocked down by a student after trying to calm down the crowd, and one student had to be subdued using a Taser. The six suspects were later arraigned on charges that include resisting and obstructing police, disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct.

But according to Renee Heard, director of the Digital Learning Center, the district has incidents like these under control, thanks in large part to the “robust lines of internal communication” between the 22 staff members at Taft.

“The successes that we have experienced at the DLC thus far are not due to discipline or stringent policies used with students, but instead by focusing on building positive relationships with our young people,” she said via email. “The staff has seen growth in most of our students and recognizes the potential that students have both academically and in the social aspects of school. Students have responded well to having a consistent adult mentor who not only helps with academics, but who can also be a resource in helping to navigate life situations.”

However, the school’s recent history of criminal activity has often overshadowed its educational goals. The most significant disturbance occurred last December, when a Taft student was shot in the leg, following an attempted armed robbery in the school parking lot. This incident led the district to install security cameras at Taft in February and assign a school resource officer to the facility in April.

Incidents like the shooting, as well as the recent fight and armed assault, have also led to concerns among Ferndale residents about the safety of the school and the local neighborhood. But Heard wanted to assure community members that, while she understands their unease about Taft, these unfortunate incidents do not define the school.

“I can confidently say that what happens within the school community is not the same as the current perception,” she said. “The DLC has a talented and committed staff who have shown what positive and consistent relationships with students, many of whom have not been successful in other schools but who still want and need an education, can accomplish. … The story of the DLC is not in two isolated incidents but in the day-to-day work visible in each of the classrooms. … The beauty of our educational system is that all students, regardless of ZIP code, are able to receive a high-quality education.”

Collins agreed but suggested that the extra security measures at Taft are a necessary piece of the puzzle. “They’re working toward a laudable goal at that school,” he said, “but until they get there, there are going to be some hiccups along the way. That’s why it’s a good idea that they have a consistent law enforcement presence over there.”