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VOL. 123 | NO. 32 | Friday, February 15, 2008

Herenton Continues Call For Metal Detectors

By Bill Dries

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GUNNING FOR CHANGES: Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton talks with Memphis school board vice president Martavius Jones after a City Hall press conference Wednesday in which Herenton vowed to beef up the police presence on city school campuses.
-- Photo By Bill Dries

All Memphis city middle, junior and senior high schools already have metal detectors. Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton's plan to put up $500,000 in city money for the immediate purchase of 65 walk-through and 210 handheld detectors is part of a plan to make daily searches of students less of an obstacle - logistically and politically.

It's also one of several measures local leaders have announced this week to keep a string of campus gun incidents from having a "snowball effect" - in the words of Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons.

Gibbons has broadened his office's guidelines for seeking to try teenagers as adults to include some cases in which juveniles bring guns to school, whether they shoot someone or even fire the guns.

Both developments came the same day that an unloaded gun was found in the backpack of a 14-year-old student at Lester School in Binghampton. Monday, a student at Mitchell High School in South Memphis was shot three times and critically wounded by a classmate in a running gang dispute that came to a head in gym class. That shooting came one week after a Hamilton High School student was shot in the leg during a classroom argument.

"We have gangs in our schools. We have gangs in our neighborhoods. We have guns in our schools. We have guns in our neighborhoods." Herenton said Wednesday. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is a reality check. That's what urban America is all about today. ... You can't look at this problem with rose-tinted glasses. It's ugly. It's real."

Debate: over

For Herenton, this week was an attempt to end the debate about metal detectors and their price and take on the line that has historically separated police turf from school turf in Memphis.

"You can't look at this problem with rose-tinted glasses. It's ugly. It's real."

- Mayor Willie Herenton,
On gangs and guns in schools

"Let me make it emphatically clear that it is unacceptable to say to the citizens of Memphis that we cannot afford to place metal detectors in our schools - totally unacceptable," he said as Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin and Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell stood by his side. "What I want to do today as the mayor of this city is end that debate. As far as I'm concerned that debate is over."

The former city schools superintendent was careful to say he wasn't being critical of the school board or interim superintendent Dan Ward, who worked under Herenton during the dozen years he headed the school system. He did single out some school principals.

"We have a problem at the school level. Some of these principals have made some decisions that they are not going to cooperate with the Memphis Police Department. And that's nonsense," he said. "We're going to have principals that understand that they are going to work with the Memphis Police Department."

Nothing sacred

School leaders will also be seeing more police officers with the immediate shift of 67 cops to 25 high schools and seven middle and junior high schools. Police will also use directed patrols in and around city schools right before and right after school as well as during the school lunch hour.

Godwin went further than Herenton.

"Schools seem to be a sacred cow, where those that want to engage in criminal activity take their violence, take their weapons, take their drugs and think that they're protected inside, behind the walls of the school. That is not the case," Godwin said.

Luttrell talked about linking the school efforts to neighborhood groups and trying to build better families through counseling programs, of which Herenton has also renewed discussion.

"Metal detectors alone will not solve the problem," Luttrell said. "Metal detectors are a big player. But there are so many other players. ... If we can't solve the problems in our schools, then we have a huge problem outside of our schools."

Warm bodies needed

City school board vice president Martavius Jones was at the press conference along with reporters in the Hall of Mayors. And as Herenton left, he approached Jones and said he was genuine in his desire to talk more with school leaders.

Jones told reporters that he welcomed Herenton's comments as a bid for constructive dialogue. The cost of more metal detectors, he noted, involves manning them. Not just having more of them.

"It's more so the staffing. ... We already have metal detectors," Jones said, noting that current policy requires principals to use metal detectors nine days of the school year. The principals can pick any nine days they want and the use varies from school to school. "This is an opportunity for us, once we have all of the information, to revisit what the policy is," Jones said.

Gibbons' new juvenile transfer policy will now include cases in which a gun is brought on campus.

"The policy says 'use of a gun.' That doesn't necessarily mean firing the gun. Someone can be charged with aggravated assault even though they don't fire the gun," he said. "If they point the gun and threaten someone with it, under our definition of aggravated assault in Tennessee ... that individual can be charged."

However, he was quick to point out that if a child brings a gun and it's found in a backpack, such situations would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

"I am very, very concerned that given the recent incidents that we could have a snowball effect - a domino effect if you will - and more incidents like this. ... So what we're doing is the maximum allowed under our state law to try to deter that," Gibbons said.

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