In 2004, 15-year-old Westside High School student Tarus Williams wanted to be a member of G-Unit, a small student-led gang. But in order to gain entry, Williams had to fight another member in the school bathroom.
Williams never joined the gang. During the fight, his heart ruptured after he was thrown into a bathroom stall.
Such fights — along with an increase in citywide gang violence — have led to a tougher anti-gang policy for Memphis City Schools (MCS). Starting this fall, students caught wearing gang colors, throwing gang signs, or participating in any type of gang activity will face expulsion.
"Our greatest concern should be that recruiting of new gang members is occurring in elementary and middle school," Mike Heidingsfield, director of the Memphis/Shelby County Crime Commission, said in an interview last year.
"From the media, we get a sense that [gang members] are young men in their early 20s, but it begins long before that," Heidingsfield said. "Schools are the single biggest center for gang recruitment."
The Shelby County District Attorney's Office estimates that there are roughly 5,000 teenage gang members and "wannabe" gang members in Shelby County.
"We do have a growing gang problem in the Memphis community, and thus in our schools," said Memphis City Schools board vice president Tomeka Hart. "We want the message to be clear that gang affiliation is prohibited."
In addition to hand signals and colors, teachers also will be looking for any student passing out gang literature, wearing jewelry that represents gang affiliation, participating in gang fights, or writing gang graffiti. They'll even be looking for gang affiliation in how students groom themselves.
"Some styles of braids mean kids are in a gang, or maybe it's a certain way they wear their belt," Hart said.
However, students won't be expelled immediately because of their fashion choices. Rather, students caught displaying certain colors and styles will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
"If we see a child wearing their belt in that certain way, we're not going to immediately expel that child," Hart said. "We'll bring the child in and figure out what's going on."
If middle or high school students are displaying gang affiliation, they will face an expulsion of 11 to 180 days. The longer, 180-day punishment probably will be reserved for students who bring weapons to school or commit more serious offenses.
Before expelled students can return to school, they must go through mandatory gang-prevention counseling. Students facing longer-term expulsions may be eligible for placement in an alternative school.
But some critics of the plan worry that expulsion won't be a deterrent to some gang members.
"I'm going to be frank," Hart said. "If we have a kid who doesn't care and there's nothing we can do, then he or she is probably more of a distraction than we need. If a child knows an offense can get him or her kicked out of school and it doesn't matter to them, what else can we do for that child?"
Elementary school students will face a three- to five-day suspension if caught demonstrating gang affiliation or interest.
"If a third-grader has an older sibling in a gang and they bring a scarf to show off, we don't want them suspended from school," says Hart. "But we will know that child is a potential target for [future gang recruitment]. That's where the intervention comes in."
The district's new gang-prevention coordinator, a staff position created last spring, will oversee enforcement of the gang policy. Director of Student Engagement Ron Pope is currently serving in the role on an interim basis. Pope was unavailable for comment.
"We need our kids to understand we're not playing around," Hart said. "If students are walking up and down the halls throwing gang signs, we don't know who is for real and who is [just messing around]. Last year, that might have gotten a lesser response. But this year, it could get you expelled from school."