MEMPHIS, Tennessee – Weeks before the September shooting at the Cummings K-8 school in Memphis, Shelby County school system administrators were aware of an alarming increase in student aggressive behavior and weapons being brought to school school campuses, but critics say they never informed the public, parents or teachers.
FOX13 secured multiple Safe Schools Act grant applications from Shelby County schools to the Tennessee Department of Education.
Through grants, the state allocates millions of dollars each year to local school districts for safety measures. Local school districts use the money for everything from security cameras to metal detectors.
In the application for Shelby County Schools’ 2022 fiscal year, which was submitted Sept. 28, two days before the Cummings school shooting, district leaders — like Superintendent Joris Ray, director of security Carolyn Jackson and Chief of Security Gerald Darling – have documented a steady increase in disturbing incidents since the start of the school year, which was Aug. 9.
During the first week of school, there were 10 incidents.
The second week saw 22 incidents.
During the sixth week of school, the district reported 36 incidents, before dropping to 31 during the seventh week.
The Cummings shooting happened during the eighth week of school, September 30, when a 13-year-old shot another inside the school building.
By not sharing information about increased student aggressive behavior, district leaders are putting teachers at risk, said Keith Williams, director of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association.
“We’ve had more assaults on teachers this year than I’ve ever heard of in my forty-four years in this business,” Williams said.
“And they will move them to other schools and that kind of thing. But the very idea that children have the propensity to mug, mug, hit, hit, threaten to kill a teacher. And that is definitely happening in Shelby County schools,” he said.
Not only is this happening, but school district leaders describe in the narrative section of the 2022 statewide application why it is happening.
“The data reflects that student behavior has been affected after being indoors with little movement due to COVID-19, which has led to a higher number of fights at school this year with a high number weapons found during school and at after-hours sporting events,” Williams said.
Where Ray and his lieutenants may have lacked transparency with parents and teachers about violence in Shelby County schools, they have been completely transparent with the state Department of Education in requesting Safe Act grant, as required by the agency.
FOX13 recordings obtained through the Freedom of Information Act request show Memphis-Shelby County schools asking the state for more than $3 million in Safe Act money since fiscal year 2019.
Memphis-Shelby County schools will spend nearly $13 million on safety and security this year, and the Safety Act money is additional funding to help keep school campuses safe.
While the local school system can use the grant money for things like paying school resource officers and passing metal detectors, other FOX13 recordings obtained from the school system show that the Cummings school had no neither passing metal detectors nor school resource officer assigned to this.
Teachers’ union director Williams said too often schools are made vulnerable when educators have to take on security roles.
“They should be the ones searching, verifying, examining weapons,” Williams said. “It should be on the security team, not the teachers, certainly not the teachers. We’ve had several teachers hurt in this process, going inside purses, going inside pockets, and they don’t want to do it. But we make them do it for the safety of the school.
Every five years, the Department of Education audits districts to see if they are using Safe Act money wisely.
The last audit of Memphis-Shelby County schools was for the 2018/19 school year, and there were no grant compliance issues.
“We found no violations,” said Bill Byford of the Tennessee Department of Education. “When we find violations, corrective actions are involved and it can jeopardize funding if you don’t fix those things.”
The Cummings school shooting immediately caught the attention of TDOE officials in Nashville, who say they will closely monitor the safety and security performance of newly renamed Memphis-Shelby County schools.
And, with millions of dollars in Safe Act money on the line, the state will next audit the Memphis-Shelby County school system in the 2023-2024 school year.
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Just hours before this story aired on FOX13, we received a statement from MSCS.
The 11 a.m. statement:
Memphis-Shelby County Schools (MSCS) is committed to maintaining a safe learning environment for all employees, students, and families. As we reimagine education, schools and communities in 901, the district is consulting with former Memphis Police Superintendent Toney Armstrong for an ongoing evaluation of our safety and security measures. Due to the confidential nature of the Local Education Agency (LEA) security assessment, MSCS is prohibited from disclosing exam details.
“As I often say, before students can learn, they need to feel safe,” Superintendent Dr. Joris said. Mr. Ray. “Director Armstrong’s skill and expert knowledge throughout his initial assessment was instrumental in guiding us towards a more modern and innovative approach to school safety. To be clear, these approaches will require sustained funding.
“Our safety and security team operates at a high level of efficiency, but needs and deserves adequate resources and support. We cannot put a price tag on security,” he said.
“Schools are seen as safe havens, a place where children should always feel welcome and ready to learn,” Principal Armstrong said. “My safety review for MSCS is not about increasing policing, but rather about strengthening protocols and processes to keep schools safe.”
- Armstrong conducted numerous focus groups with students, employees, and the MSCS Safety Department to research and analyze district-wide safety perceptions, processes and culture.
- The District is currently reviewing the recommendations and considerations from Director Armstrong’s initial assessment.
- The district is still studying the feasibility of a peacekeeping force.
- A steering committee comprised of key district personnel will be established to continue ongoing efforts to improve district safety protocols.
- The district will explore partnership initiatives with other government entities to keep students safe beyond the school day.
NOTE: Due to the confidential nature of the Local Education Agency (LEA) safety assessment, Memphis-Shelby County Schools will not be offering media availability to discuss details of the exam.
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