Metal Detectors Being Used at Shelby County Elementary Schools

By Bill Dries

Handheld metal detectors are being used in elementary schools in the Shelby County Schools system as one of several reactions to a kindergarten student who had a gun in his backpack Thursday, Aug. 22, at Westside Elementary School.

The gun went off while in the backpack just before the start of the school day. No one was injured.

Interim schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson defended the response of the school staff to the gunshot, saying they called school system security, who contacted the Memphis Police Department.

In a Friday press conference, Hopson also said school administrators are instructed to call both the Memphis Police Department and Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. The police response to some earlier calls the school system made to MPD about incidents at Memphis schools was to say police no longer answered such calls, Hopson said.

“Sometimes they come and sometimes they don’t,” he added.

Hopson talked and met with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. before Thursday’s incident at Westside over his concerns about the response and again after the incident.

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 for 15 that currently have Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies assigned to them. The city’s previous position had been that Memphis police would only be in Memphis schools through the end of this year to train Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies in the transition of who handles schools security within Memphis.

Hopson also noted Friday that the consolidated school system spent “all summer long” awaiting a final word on whether Memphis police would continue to have a presence in the schools.

“We shouldn’t be playing politics with kids’ safety,” he said.

Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong criticized Hopson for not coming directly to him with the problem. And Armstrong said the proper response was for someone at the school to call 9-1-1.

Hopson said he talked with Wharton because Wharton is Armstrong's boss and the school system had been talking with Wharton and his administration at City Hall in the run-up to the July 1 merger date and Aug. 5 start of the school year about security at schools.

"The Memphis Police Department would have responded had we been given the proper information," Armstrong said Friday in a separate press conference after Hopson's. "The problem here is that a city schools employee called the board of education rather than calling 9-1-1."

Based on the initial call, Armstrong said police didn't believe the call was an emergency because there was no indication the gun had gone off. And the first call indicated the gun might be a B.B.gun or a cap pistol.

"At the time of the call, all of our officers were dispatched on other calls and none of our officers were able to make this call," Armstrong said. "It was not a high priority call. Additional cars from other precincts were not dispatched."

While he outlined some new safety policies, emphasized that existing policies were followed and said the school system is always reviewing safety measures, Hopson said the 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.