Last week, Memphis school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. read the riot act. This week, interim superintendent Dan Ward read the manual.
Whalum says Memphis City Schools should be closed immediately until metal detectors are put in place to keep guns out. Is he overreacting to a shooting at Mitchell High School, which is part of a system with 115,000 students?
Ward says schools already have metal detectors, more are on the way, and schools are reasonably safe. Is he underreacting to a system that tolerates violence, gangs, classroom disruption, and low academic performance?
Whalum, the son of former city councilman Kenneth Whalum Sr., is agitated, full of fire, and doesn't give "a flying flip" what others think of his impatience. Ward is calm and reassuring about "initiatives" and "prevention strategies."
Whalum is the coach who gets in your face to get you fired up for the fourth quarter. Ward is the kindly guidance counselor who says everything is going to be all right, just do better, and gives you another chance.
School board chairman Tomeka Hart is Whalum's nemesis and Ward's ally. Hart is an attorney, MCS graduate, and natural leader who will be a force in Memphis politics for years to come. Whalum is a preacher, MCS graduate, and natural leader who is going to be a force in Memphis politics for years to come. Hart sees the cup as half-full, Whalum as half-empty.
Last week, Whalum said "my heart sank when I saw a smiling Tomeka Hart" on the news last week in the wake of the shooting at Mitchell.
On Monday night at the school board meeting, Whalum was absent when Ward presented his safety plan and Hart praised it, while chiding The Commercial Appeal for a headline suggesting Mitchell and Hamilton high schools are "tilting toward chaos."
"One incident is not an indication that this school is tilting toward chaos," said Hart, although the story said the shooter was arrested for a school fight a year ago.
Hart said "there are far too many people who do not understand" that MCS already has security measures. Ward then proceeded, at length, to list them.
The litany includes in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, expulsion, alternative schools, police officers in the schools, controlled access, and 25 guns seized since September. MCS will add 15 X-ray machines, 23 security officers, more gun screens in some schools, and accept Mayor Willie Herenton's offer of 67 additional officers redeployed from the Memphis Police Department. Ward will order more audits. He'll remind principals to be accountable. He asked "the shrill voices of calamity" to pipe down — an apparent reference to Whalum — and said "this is not the time for divisive rhetoric and mixed signals to our children."
Ward and Herenton disagree about the school system's relationship with the police department. Ward says it "works extremely well." But Herenton and police director Larry Godwin said at a press conference last week that "we have a problem at the school level," communication is poor, and some principals don't trust the police.
Monday's school board meeting was neither packed nor heated. The board meetings that draw the biggest crowds are the ones that address dress codes, corporal punishment, or school closings and zoning. It is a platitude to say guns and gangs are everyone's problem, but they are more of a problem for some schools than others. Again and again, Hart would call the name of a citizen who signed up to speak and the citizen would fail to appear. About 10 people did speak on the issue of guns and violence.
"Remember, there are 100,000 students out there who didn't do anything wrong," said Charles Scott, president of the Memphis Council of PTAs.
"We will not rest until corporal punishment and prayer are put back in our high school," said Kimberly Cofield of Concerned Parents of Mitchell High School.
Police should look at gangs as terrorist organizations, said James Sawyer.
Board member Sharon Webb, whose district includes Mitchell, said the school had $4 million worth of college scholarship offers, although the 2007 Annual Scholarship Report says the amount offered was $1,526,488.
So it went, with little agreement about the facts, the problem, and what to do about it.