Airports with professional screeners and multiple walk-through metal detectors struggle to get hundreds of people through them before their flights leave. Now Memphis schools may be asked to get thousands of students through them before the tardy bell rings.
Holding the third press conference in Memphis on school violence in less than 24 hours, Mayor Willie Herenton came out for more metal detectors for more schools Wednesday. But he sidestepped questions about whether they would be used every day in every city high school and middle school as well as the staggering logistical difficulties of doing that.
"It is unacceptable to say we cannot afford to make schools safe," Herenton said at an afternoon press conference at City Hall. He was flanked by Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin and Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell, who said their forces will cooperate to reduce gang activity and violence in the schools in the wake of Monday's shooting of a Mitchell High School student by another student.
Herenton said he was ending the debate over whether the city could afford to make schools safe. But given his statement a moment earlier that violence in schools is a national problem, and his oft-stated reminder that crime can be reduced but not eliminated, it was unclear what that means. He seemed to be trying to end or preempt a turf war with the school board by saying that public safety is a city and police function while education is a school board function.
Earlier Wednesday, school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. held his own press conference at his church, Olivet Baptist Church. Saying he represents more people than voted for Herenton last October, Whalum called for all schools to be immediately closed until metal detectors can be put in use at "every school every day."
Memphis City Schools needs to be shut down," said Whalum, an at-large board member. He took only about five minutes or less of questions, and reporters were unable to get details of his sweeping statements.
I don't care where they go, I just don't want them in school getting shot to death," he said when asked if children were not safer at school than anywhere else.
Neither Herenton nor Whalum were joined by any other school board members. On Tuesday, board members and interim superintendent Dan Ward held a press conference, with Whalum the only absence. Board member Tomeka Hart got most of the television camera time with an appeal for calm and a measured response to the shooting.
Whalum said "my heart sank when I saw a smiling Tomeka Hart" saying that despite its problems the city schools are reasonably safe for their more than 100,000 customers.
Herenton said he will offer more specifics next week. On Wednesday, he called for redeploying 67 Memphis police officers to Memphis schools, with the focus on 25 high schools and 7 middle schools. He also called for purchasing 65 walk-through metal detectors, 210 hand-held detectors, and allocating $500,000 for security equipment.
He said former board member Sara Lewis, who now holds a full-time position in the Herenton administration, will begin leading parenting sessions at community centers and libraries.
Without naming names, Herenton said "we have a problem at the school level" with principals who don't communicate with the police department and officers. Such disputes often stem from the issue of discipline and overall responsibility for school operation and safety. Godwin said police will step up their patrols of schools (which he called "sacred cows)" before, during, and after school hours.
Even if metal detectors are put in place, they will not prevent shootings on school grounds outside the building, or with guns passed through windows, guns that get inside due to metal detector or operator failure, and guns in elementary schools or combined elementary and middle schools such as Snowden.
Compounding the potential problem, hundreds of students arriving at the same time would have to be funneled through a single entrance, where impatience, frustration, pushing and shoving could lead to more incidents. Some city high schools have more than 2,000 students. And the symbolism of schools and metal detectors will undoubtedly make some parents with means and wherewithal decide that worse has come to worst and to abandon MCS for county and private schools.
Herenton is a former MCS superintendent. In his 16 years as mayor, he has for the most part avoided second-guessing his successors. He was apparently driven to act this week by a combination of the most recent shooting, other shootings, the two earlier press conferences, and a previously announced "plan" to join with Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton to speak with Gov. Phil Bredesen about school funding.