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VOL. 123 | NO. 38 | Monday, February 25, 2008

School Safety Rumors Addressed at Meeting

By Bill Dries

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DISCUSSING THE PROBLEM: During a talk to a ministers' group last week at First Baptist Church in Binghampton, Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin highlighted the problems caused by rival gang colors in the same school. -- Photo By Bill Dries

Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin is used to knocking down rumors. It's part of the job description practically. And separating fact from fiction is a basic part of what any police officer does.

But last week at a Binghampton church, Godwin brought up a rumor - a provocative rumor in light of Mayor Willie Herenton's call this month for a higher police profile not just around the city but in Memphis City Schools.

Herenton also accused some principals of not working with police to make schools safer. And he vowed that police would start making arrests inside schools to quell gang rivalries and other disorders that surfaced this month with three gun incidents at three schools over a two-week period.

Uniform discretion

Godwin picked up the point again Thursday as he talked with a group of Binghampton church ministers at First Baptist Church on Broad Avenue. The ministers meet every three months with law enforcement leaders. Among the ministers in the group of around 80 last week was Sharon Webb, who is also a Memphis City Schools board member.

"I don't know, Dr. Webb, maybe you can answer this question. I'm going to throw something out right here that's a rumor. I don't like rumors," Godwin began. "At one of the high schools, I understand students can pay money and wear what they want."

Webb said the rumor was news to her and added that the school system's uniform policy gives principals some discretion.

"The principal does have the authority that for good behavior they can have a dress down day," Webb told Godwin.

"You need to look into this and I'm going to tell you why," Godwin replied as he talked about students wearing the gang colors of red, blue and black to represent rival gangs in the same school. "We're learning a little bit about this through some communications recently. You need to know that because it's causing issues inside of our schools. It should not be."

Webb talked about a ban on red clothes at one of the two schools where a student shot another student earlier this month.

"I know for a fact that at Mitchell High School they do not allow the children to wear anything red. Red is a no-no," she said.

"You might want to double-check that one," Godwin replied firmly as he returned to the rumor and the problems it could create among rival gangs. "The bottom line is schools aren't a safe haven for gang bangers to do their fighting and their violence. It's not. See, we arrest the same ones outside. We're just not arresting them inside. Well, maybe we need to start arresting inside."

Addressing the problem

Recommendations in the anti-crime blueprint Operation Safe Community, created in 2006, include more police in schools, a city school system police force and putting
Juvenile Court probation officers in schools to monitor juvenile offenders returned
to the schools.

The long-term plan was agreed on at a crime summit attended by Godwin, Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell, Herenton, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, among others.

"We need to make sure we get that plan implemented no later than next school year. It's been sitting there over a year without being implemented," Gibbons told the church group.

Gibbons and the other leaders are working on a March 25 follow-up to the crime summit. The two-and-a-half-hour session scheduled for FedExForum will be to assess how effective Operation Safe Community has been. And Luttrell and Gibbons conceded there are some problem areas.

Luttrell said crime problems in Memphis also are crime problems outside the city limits.

"It's a different culture. It's a different day," Luttrell said. "Those of you who live outside of the city of Memphis, don't wipe your brow thinking that you've dodged that bullet. You haven't."

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