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VOL. 128 | NO. 9 | Monday, January 14, 2013

Schools Security Plan Emphasizes Consistency

By Bill Dries

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While many of the most controversial issues of the coming merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools are still to be decided, the issue of how to handle school security appears to be settled.

When the two public school systems in Shelby County become one countywide system starting in August, the single school system will likely continue to use a combination of commissioned law enforcement officers and a school system security force. And the merged school system will operate its security system in house as opposed to hiring a third party.

The merger is not expected to result in a more expensive budget line item for security.

The difference is the school resource officers, the commissioned law enforcement presence, will likely change in schools within Memphis from Memphis Police Department officers to Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies.

Those were the recommendations approved in December by the countywide school board.

Memphis City Schools outgoing superintendent Kriner Cash told school board members last month the “hybrid model” has worked and proven itself in terms of results in truancy rates and attendance rates.

“The security and the safety is a much-improved condition in our schools. However, it is under scrutiny and I think potentially threatened at this time,” Cash said. “These costs will stay relatively stable. But if we start to make this political as opposed to looking at the data, then it won’t pass muster from our educational standpoint.”

Cash said top administrators from both school systems who have formed the steering committee hoped to meet with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell after the holiday break to talk more about school security needs.

Meanwhile, Shelby County Commissioners approved $2 million extra in funding in November for Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham to put sheriff’s deputies in what are now Memphis City Schools.

Oldham said he continues to talk with Memphis Police Department brass and the Wharton administration.

“The security and the safety is a much-improved condition in our schools.”

–Kriner Cash

But Oldham and other county leaders are operating under the assumption that the Memphis Police Department will not have an assigned presence in any schools once the 2013-2014 school year begins.

Deputies already work as school resource officers in what are now Shelby County Schools in unincorporated Shelby County and Lakeland and Arlington.

Gary Gitchell, the head of Shelby County Schools security, said police chiefs in all six of the suburban towns and cities have pledged that their departments will continue the services they provide to schools within their borders.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., last month, Gitchell said there is a lot of concern among parents locally.

Technology that would limit access to schools is a “fairly simple fix” for newer county schools like Arlington and Southwind high schools, he said, putting the cost at about $20,000 each.

Older high school campuses are more problematic because they have multiple buildings instead of everything under one roof like the newer schools.

Access controls are probably not the best option, Gitchell said.

“Then you are going to have a nightmare,” he told the school board as he talked about a system that would open access to different buildings for class changes and then close the access at different times. “There’s not a real good fix there.”

Memphis City Schools security chief Gerald Darling said he and his staff were part of the discussion on Juvenile Court reforms that included the issue of disproportionate minority contact. The U.S. Justice Department attorneys who examined Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court operations over a four-year period found a disproportionately higher level of harsher punishment and transfers of juveniles for trial as adults among black children than white children.

Steps toward bringing those numbers down are a key part of the settlement agreement signed off on last year by the court, the Justice Department and Luttrell.

Cash has campaigned in the past for state legislation that would make the Memphis City Schools security force a special group of law enforcement officers. The legislation drew opposition from Memphis Police Department brass.

Cash has said by the time police are called to campuses, the result too often is the arrest of a juvenile sometimes when it is not necessary.

When he was police director, Larry Godwin complained that some school principals were not acting quickly enough to stem violent incidents on campus. And he was backed in that position by then-Mayor Willie Herenton, who was a former Memphis City Schools superintendent.

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