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Weapons Test

Memphis City Schools urge more gun checks following school shooting.

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Last Wednesday, Markees Smith, a 15-year-old Manassas High School student, was arrested after his handgun accidentally went off, shooting a 16-year-old classmate in the arm.

On the same day, 20-year-old Eddie Smith was arrested at Fairley High for bringing a gun onto school grounds to confront a 17-year-old female student. While wrestling the gun away from Smith, a school security officer broke his hand.

The day before, a gun was recovered from Ridgeway High when a 14-year-old student was caught putting it inside a classmate's folder.

Following last week's incidents, the Memphis City Schools administration is asking schools to beef up weapons screenings. Currently, schools are required to perform nine random weapon checks per school year. The new request does not mandate additional screenings but leaves it to the discretion of principals.

"They're not saying you have to do 15 as opposed to nine. They just want them to be more frequent," says MCS spokesperson Shawn Pachuki. "They may come up with a [new] number down the road."

School board member Tomeka Hart says the current requirement is only meant to be a minimum number of screenings.

"That certainly does not mean that a school only has to do nine," Hart says. "We need our policies to be broad enough so that we're not hand-holding our principals. We expect our principals to know their communities and to tailor their practices for the needs of the community."

Prior to last week's shooting, Manassas, a small school with fewer than 600 students, performed random metal detector screenings once a month.

"This was a student who knew there was a chance he'd be checked that day, and he still brought a gun to school," Hart says. "He knew if he brought a gun to school, he'd be kicked out for a calendar year. We can't get a whole lot tougher on our policies."

Memphis City Schools adopted the use of metal detectors in 1996, but last year the district set a minimum number of screenings per year. Hart says using the metal detectors on a daily basis would take too much time.

"If it takes an hour to get kids through, do we start school an hour early or do we miss an hour out of the education day?" Hart asks.

At least one school, Booker T. Washington High on Lauderdale, conducts daily weapons checks. Principal Alisha Kiner says school doors open at 7:30 a.m., and students are screened upon entering the building. Those with backpacks enter one door, and those without are screened at another door. The school's 755 students filter through screening until the tardy bell rings at 8:10 a.m.

"Believe it or not, we still find something every once in a while," Kiner says. "To be honest, parents need to check their kids before they leave the house. That would make it so much easier."

Every middle and high school in the district is equipped with at least one walk-through metal detector and two metal detector wands. Additional walk-through units are added per 500 students, and schools get more wands for every additional 300 students.

It can take six people to operate a check at small schools and up to 20 staff members at larger schools. Some schools opt to perform checks before class and others surprise students with random wand checks during class.

"They could set up a checkpoint in the hallway between periods. Kids walk out [of class] and then, bam, there's a set-up there," Pachucki says. "Or they might walk into a classroom and announce, okay, everybody, we're going to do a metal detection check. Principals have the discretion to do them when they want and as frequently as they want."

The real problem, Hart says, lies within the communities. She says educators should do a better job talking to parents and kids about guns.

"We have to get into our communities and talk to our parents. We need to go find out, from that particular family, what is it about your child that made him or her decide to bring a gun to school today?" Hart says.

Despite the three incidents last week, Hart says gun incidents at city schools are infrequent. However, MCS was unable to provide statistics of gun incidents by press time.

"We have to put these incidents into perspective," Hart says. "It's rare that kids bring guns into our schools. We have 115,000 students. Even if 20 kids in a school year bring their guns to school, the board has to look at the big picture."

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