It took three weeks into the unified school system’s first school year for Memphis Police to get a memo that they were to respond to calls at Shelby County Schools within the city of Memphis.
The information bulletin from Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong went out to all officers Thursday, Aug. 22, the same day that a 5-year-old kindergarten student at Westside Elementary School walked into the Frayser school with a gun in his backpack and the gun went off in the backpack.
Prior to police roll calls that day, Armstrong said a verbal order was given: “If you get a call to a school you are to respond, especially if it is an emergency call.”
Armstrong and interim schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson showed the sometimes-active political fault line between the school system and the Memphis Police Department is active once again.
They held separate press conferences the same afternoon with each critical of the way the other’s department operates.
“I felt that he should have picked up the phone and called the police director,” Armstrong said of Hopson.
Hopson expressed frustration because long before the July 1 merger effective date and the Aug. 5 school year start – “all summer long,” he said – schools officials had been talking with the administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. seeking a basic “yes” or “no” to the question of whether Memphis Police would be in or out of the former Memphis City Schools once the merger began. So were county government leaders.
As the school year began, the city’s response, according to Hopson, was Memphis Police would remain through the end of December in Memphis schools, where they had resource officers assigned before the merger, to train Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies. Then they would be out of the schools resource officer business.
Hopson said the response from police in the last three weeks when there have been calls involving schools in Memphis was different from call to call.
“Sometimes they come and sometimes they don’t,” was how Hopson described it Friday.
Hopson talked and met with Wharton before Thursday’s incident at Westside over his concerns about the response and again after the incident.
“We shouldn’t be playing politics with kids’ safety,” Hopson added.
As Hopson was responding to questions about the incident, Memphis Police brass issued a written statement saying police officers would be on the campuses of all Memphis schools in the Shelby County Schools system except 15 that currently have Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies assigned to them.
Armstrong said instead of calling schools security and then schools security reporting the incident to police, administrators at Westside should have called 9-1-1.
“The Memphis Police Department would have responded had we been given the proper information. The problem here is that a city school employee called the board of education rather than calling 9-1-1,” Armstrong said. “When something like that happens, I can’t even tell you how much information has to be obtained. For us to have to extract that information from people that’s giving us second-hand information – it’s just unacceptable.”
The last time public schools administrators and Memphis Police clashed was 2008 during the tenure of interim Memphis City Schools superintendent Dan Ward. A series of shootings on Memphis City Schools campuses prompted fears by then-Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin that the incidents would escalate into more campus and off-campus violence.
Both were adamant that some principals were not reporting such incidents and Godwin declared that his officers would respond and go onto campuses even if they weren’t called by the school system.
Incoming schools superintendent Kriner Cash immediately beefed up the school system’s security force and sought state legislation to commission security officers as what amounted to a police force for the school system. Godwin opposed it in Nashville and it didn’t get very far.
Meanwhile Wharton sided with Cash’s desire to see an alternative to taking school children to Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court for detention once police were called to a school campus. Police officers had little choice but to take the children into custody until alternative resolution programs and the issuance of juvenile summons for non-violent offenses began to be used.
Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person Jr. was among those who agreed that in too many cases students with problems at schools including refusing to tuck in their shirttails were entering the juvenile justice system when they didn’t have to.
Hopson ordered hand-held metal detectors to be used starting last week in elementary schools. It’s a move he made reluctantly.
While he outlined some new safety policies, emphasized that other existing policies were followed and said the school system is always reviewing safety measures, Hopson said the Westside incident is also an indication of a “community issue.”
“Metal detectors in an elementary school signifies what the learning environment is going to be,” Hopson said.