School Closings

Shelby County board members address personal attacks, charges of racism at school closings meeting

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Community members at a meeting hosted by Shelby County school board

Shelby County school board members and superintendent Dorsey E. Hopson II addressed residents’ accusations that the planned closings of 13 schools are racially motivated during a meeting at Westhaven Elementary School Tuesday.

“There is no conspiracy to undermine the black community,” Hopson said. “When I hear stuff like, this is a race issue, it’s offensive…Shelby County Schools has the population it does, and most of the kids in Shelby County Schools look like me.”

The district is considering closing as many as 13 schools in Memphis before the 2014-15 school year due to a combination of declining enrollment, low academic achievement, and deteriorating facilities. Most of those closings are in predominantly black areas. This was the seventh community meeting about the closings out of nine scheduled by the board.

At each meeting so far, speakers have told the board that impact of school closings has historically fallen in black communities. “The district has never closed a predominantly Caucasian school,” said Keith Williams, the president of the Memphis Shelby County Education Association, at meetings at both Northside High School and at Westhaven.

Board members have not publicly responded to accusations that the decisions about what schools will close are based on race at previous meetings.

The complaints made about the impact of closings on black communities are not unique to Memphis. Last year, groups in six cities filed complaints with the federal education department’s Office of Civil Rights alleging that school closings have a disparate impact on minority communities.

District officials said Tuesday that Westhaven was put on the list of schools to close due to the deteriorating quality of its building. Westhaven PTA president Bridget Bailey asked the board to consider creating a new school building.

Several speakers referred to improvements in suburban areas or northern parts of town as evidence that the district has been ignoring African-Americans. Others said the plans indicated that the board members did not care about Westhaven students.

One man asked the four board members present where their children went to school. Another speaker accused board president Kevin Woods of arrogance.

Superintendent Hopson stepped in:

Hopson said he respected attendees for coming to the meeting to voice their concerns. He asked the community to channel its energies into helping its children learn to read.

“Seventy-odd percent are not reading at grade-level…I’m not making this up,” he said.  “I’m from Memphis. It sickens me to see these numbers. We as a community have to make sure we band together to make sure all these babies are prepared for a future that’s going to require them to be prepared to read.”

After attendees had spoken, the four board members who were present responded. “My community that has to vote for me is out East,” Woods said, growing emotional. “But I care about the community here too.”

“Just because we sit on the other side of this table does not mean we do not care,” said Teresa Jones. “Everything you say, I take into consideration. And I don’t sleep some nights because I want to make the right decision. I understand what happens if a child does not get a quality education.”

“I could care less what somebody’s skin color is,” Chris Caldwell said. “I’ve asked the administration for dollars and cents to make sure if we’re going to disrupt any family, it has some benefit to a greater group of kids.”

“As your representative of this district, I am advocating what is best for the kids of Westhaven,” said Shante Avant.

Here’s board member Woods’ response:

And here are Chris Caldwell and Shante Avant.

Hopson emphasized that the board is currently considering recommendations from the district and has not made any decisions. The board plans to vote on the proposed closings later this month. 

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