by Najee El-Amin —
With only weeks remaining before the start of the Shelby County academic year, students and community members convened to express their concern about having armed officers continue to walk the halls of their schools.
“Reimagining student safety” brought together individuals from all parts of the Memphis education including Dr. Tim McCuddy, assistant professor in the department of criminology and criminal justice at The University of Memphis, and Shahidah Jones, an organizer for Black Lives Matter Memphis. Youth activists also gave their input throughout the evening.
With the virtual table set, the leaders set to tackle the question of policing in the schools. However, before the event took place moderator Octavian Morten offered a swift message of intent.
“Youth across the country, joined by their adult peers, are calling for police-free schools to end student contact with law enforcement,” said Morten.
“We hope that SCS leaders will listen to the concerns of their students calling for this change and take bold action to prevent more of our young people from entering the criminal justice system by removing law enforcement from our students’ hallways and classrooms.”
As it stands the Shelby County School District is set to vote to either continue or disband their memorandum of understanding(MOU) with the Sheriff’s department sometime before the beginning of the school year. With the August 9 date looming, SCS says that they will “plan to bring an MOU renewal to the School Board in August for consideration”.
It also looks likely that the district will again try to propose the creation of a “peace corps” aimed at community-based policing that reports directly to SCS.
While this reformation proposal is optimistic, some still remain skeptical about weapon carrying personnel being allowed on school grounds in any fashion.
“School safety is an issue that is a lot broader and requires a lot more than an officer,” said Jones. “I would be interested in talking about student safety… and what roles we need as a result of that.”
Gerald Darling, who has been leading the reform of SRO’s around the nation for years, still has faith in the program and sees it as more than a patrol force.
If you’re afraid to come to school because the environment isn’t safe, you’re losing on both ends,” said Darling. “You gotta be careful when you define the role of school safety or school resource officer as just a person that you may not like. There’s a lot more detail than that.”
The redistribution of responsibilities seemed to be on everyone’s mind including Brandon Tucker, the policy director at American Civil Liberties Union-Tennessee.
“There are a plethora of things that city leaders, lawmakers, advocates, and law enforcement can do,” said Brandon Tucker. This gets to the point of how do we define what safety, what has been the actual output or result of law enforcement in the school.”
This ended up being a perfect segue into the effective analysis of the SROs. So far all of the more seasoned speakers got their opinions off their chest but now it was time for youth advocates to get their share on the virtual podium.
“They’re going to be interacting with you day in and day out and it might not be their responsibility but if you’re working with youth that is your responsibility,” said Zahra Chowdhury
“In general, school is where we spend most of our time, the policies affect us directly and I feel like we need to have a greater say in them.”
Breaking her silence both professionally and sternly commanding the attention of the room with every point she brought into the conversation, She was understandably ready for things to change.
As the event wound down, Morten left a message that he hoped would resonate with all those in attendance and would be carried on through the school board’s vote.
“We love having conversations like this and look forward to having conversations like this but we want to move more towards action. Let your leaders know how you feel.”