Tennessee

Parents, teachers sue Shelby County Schools over closing of Memphis school

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Attorney Paul Robinson discusses a lawsuit filed on behalf of members of Memphis' South Side community in the wake of the closing of a beloved neighborhood school.

Citing the historic U.S. Supreme Court case that led to integration of America’s public schools, a handful of Memphis parents and teachers are suing Shelby County Schools over a recent school closing, claiming that its students will receive an “inferior and unequal” education at the school to which they are being reassigned.

In a motion filed in U.S. District Court, three teachers, family members of two students, and a community activist argue that test scores at South Side Middle School, which is in the process of being shuttered, outpaced those at Riverview Middle School last year. They say Riverview is a dilapidated building in a gang-ridden neighborhood that would place students’ safety at risk. They also cite absence of computer and Spanish classes at Riverview, which were offered at South Side.

“It becomes an issue when the students are moving backward, not forward,” said Paul Robinson, the group’s lawyer, during a news conference on Thursday. “Everything is worse than what they have now. When you downgrade a child’s education or place them in an inferior environment, you’re violating their constitutional rights.”

The lawsuit, which was filed last week, appears to be the first of its kind in Memphis, where declining enrollment and budget cuts have forced the closure of 19 schools in Memphis since 2012, including South Side.

Robinson said lawyers across the nation have successfully argued that school closures violate students’ rights to a quality education. An alumnus of South Side, he said he is more concerned that students will be placed in a worse school setting than he is about South Side closing.

“An inferior education is inherently unequal and it violates the 14th Amendment,” Robinson said.

Contacted by Chalkbeat on Thursday about the lawsuit, a spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools declined to comment about ongoing litigation.

However, during a series of community meetings earlier this year, Shelby County administrators said they were moving students at South Side, where just one-fourth of students met the state’s reading expectations last year, to a school in the district’s Innovation Zone, a cluster of schools that receive intense interventions aimed at academic turnarounds. The iZone is an expensive initiative that has proven mostly effective since its launch by the district in 2013.

District leaders have said the school closings are necessary because operating under-enrolled schools is not financially or academically efficient. However, Chalkbeat analysis found that students’ test scores have sunk at schools that receive students from shuttered schools, and members of the Shelby County Board of Education have challenged administrators to be more purposeful in reassigning students in the future.

South Side and its future have been the subject of much recent discussion. Twice since 2013, the state’s Achievement School District (ASD) explored intervening after the middle school landed on the list of the state’s 5 percent of worst performing schools. But both times, the ASD withdrew amid protests from the community.

Meanwhile, the school’s student test scores have stagnated. Finally in January, Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district would shutter South Side at the close of the 2014-15 school year and move its students next school year to Riverview, its cross-town rival.

During a subsequent South Side community meeting, parents and students complained that prostitutes roam the streets and gang members regularly exchange gunfire near Riverview, less than two miles from SouthSide, which is nestled in an historic neighborhood rocked by economic shifts and a flood of home foreclosures.

Teachers questioned the accuracy of test score reports from the district that presented Riverview’s scores as better than South Side’s.

“We knew some of the things weren’t right,” said Tondalaya Jackson, the school’s physical education teacher who is among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “We didn’t know we had a legal basis for it.”

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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