an eye on social justice

Reflecting on his own education, Buery advises charter students

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Deputy Mayor Richard Buery sat down with Samantha Pugh, the principal of the Charter High School for Law and Social Justice, to answer questions asked by the Bronx school’s inaugural class at City Hall last week.

When Samantha Pugh walked into City Hall last week, the principal was as giddy as the two 14-year-olds she arrived with.

It was the first time at City Hall for all three, and they took a few selfies, admired portraits of former mayors, and stood behind an official podium as they waited for more students to arrive. The 50 or so incoming ninth graders were there to question Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, who has spearheaded the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion and whose work some said they hoped to emulate.

Come September, the students will be a part of the 127-member inaugural class of the Charter High School for Law and Social Justice in the South Bronx. They were already together thanks to a four-week summer program designed to give the students an introduction to law and to high school — guidance Pugh said she had missed during her own school switch.

“I didn’t really have a smooth transition between middle school and high school,” said Pugh, who attended Brooklyn Technical High School, “and to be honest, I wasn’t academically prepared for the rigor and what I needed to do to be successful.”

The summer program was designed to give students some of those academic skills and exposure to real role models.

“We tell our kids that you can be a lawyer, but they need to actually feel the experience, sit in a law school classroom, sit in a college classroom, see actual lawyers and see lawyers of color,” Pugh said.

Chalkbeat listened in as the students talked to Buery. Here are some of the students’ questions, and what the deputy mayor had to say in response.  

What did you struggle with in high school?

“For me, going from middle school to high school was a really hard transition,” Buery said. “It was hard because I grew up in Brooklyn and I grew up in a black and Latino neighborhood, so I was just socially intimidated going to Stuyvesant. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to do the work, I was worried I wouldn’t make friends, I was worried I wouldn’t fit in, so I struggled socially a lot.”

“By the time I graduated, I loved high school,” he added. “I made great friends there, but it took a while. It didn’t happen overnight.”

How does the law come into play in being a social justice leader?

“While you don’t have to be a lawyer to impact social change, it’s almost impossible to enact social change without having the ability to impact and manipulate the law,” said Buery, who attended Yale Law School.

“The law is really intertwined with all the things that make life in America so challenging right now. Whether you live in a good neighborhood or a bad neighborhood, if you have access to good housing or good schools — ultimately, all of those things are defined by laws. It may not be the laws coming right from the book, but it’s the way that government officials make decisions.”

Is it difficult being a person of color in your position?

“The more that I’ve had opportunities to lead, I don’t let it bother me,” Buery said. “In my mind, I don’t see any limitations that come from my race or my ethnicity, but we do live in a world where race and ethnicity matters.”

“The key for us is to not let our race or our ethnicity stop us from doing what we believe, but also to understand that we live in an environment … where the world is not organized fairly and the world is not always organized for our success,” he said.

Who inspires you?

I have a lot of friends and peers who I think are doing extraordinary things in the world,” he said. “I have a lot of friends and peers who started schools, they started very successful charter school networks. Dave Levin who started KIPP Foundation who’s a friend, Dacia Toll who started Achievement First is a friend that I went to law school with … I’m inspired and challenged by them.”

What advice do you have for us?

“Be bold. Be brave. Take chances. Do what feels challenging. Do what feels scary,” he said. “Know you’re going to mess stuff up.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede