City Reporter 

City Reporter

Still Battling Over Buses

Child-care providers fight transportation changes.

By Janel Davis

The Tennessee Department of Human Services (DHS) got more than it bargained for during Monday's child-care transportation hearing at the State Office Building. A capacity crowd of child-care providers, parents, and concerned citizens turned out to protest the so-called excessive new rules governing everything from vehicle type to the color of paint used in contact information on the sides of vans.

DHS held its first rule-making hearing in Memphis to consider the new rules for child-care transportation. The department had enacted emergency rules August 21st, based on recommendations from a transportation review panel convened by Governor Don Sundquist. These rules included an additional monitor on buses, seat-belt requirements, and driver requirements.

Many providers came to the meeting upset that DHS had not consulted with them before making the changes. "With these new rules, kids will be forced into unsafe places," says Lisa Naquin of Fun Time Learning Center in Lakeland. "They will be kept by unlicensed, unsafe people ... because pedophiles don't advertise."

"I always think there should be a rule-making hearing before implementing any new law, particularly in an area as controversial as [child care]," says state Representative Lois DeBerry, who agreed with providers. Providers and parents were given an opportunity to make comments but were referred to their licensing adviser for questions. In addition to the new rules, providers were concerned about DHS's enforcement of them. Many of those commenting told DHS representatives to "let the good centers do their jobs, weed out the bad centers, and enforce the rules already in existence."

By the time of the meeting, many of the rules had already been modified, due in part to a meeting between DHS representatives and a group of providers and legislators last week. "The original rules would have closed down centers," says state Representative Kathryn Bowers, who participated in the meeting and referred to the April accident that killed a daycare-van driver and four children. "No matter what we do, nothing will bring those children back, but by enforcing rules already in place, we can try to ensure that no more are lost."

The modifications include changing the emergency rules to allow passengers to ride in the back seat of a 15-passenger van and carry children's items in the cargo area, less stringent sign requirements for agency-contact information on vehicles, and required drug testing for all new drivers and an annual physical including a drug test for current drivers. The previous commercial drivers'-license requirement for drivers and child-safety seat requirements will be further researched by the department.

Deborah Neill, director of Child and Adult Care Services for DHS, said the remaining emergency rules are currently in effect. "We are in the process of looking at more of the rules. Revisions will have to be instituted, and these areas will not be enforced until the remainder of the statewide hearings are held," she says. "Outside of the areas [being revised], the other areas will be in effect, but no rules are made without a technical-support period for providers to understand the rules."

The Black, White, and Tan Plan

New school-uniform policy gets high marks from teachers.

By Mary Cashiola

The fashion world is fickle: Hemlines go up, hemlines go down, hemlines go back up again. But at the Memphis City Schools (MCS), the first month of the school-uniform policy has gone according to the black, white, and tan plan set out earlier this year.

"It seems to be going really well," says associate superintendent Bob Archer. "We have a high compliance rate ... [of] 95 percent or better. It's been very well received."

Because exemptions to the uniform policy are granted -- based on parents' and students' religious or other strongly held beliefs -- by the schools' principals, there's no way to tell exactly how many students have opted out districtwide. "It's up to the principals," says MCS spokesperson Debbie Baker. "There's no disciplinary action involved, so there's no reason to let anyone know."

Baker estimates there's been about three exemptions denied in each of the district's three school zones. "In Zone 1, three exemptions were denied by principals, and the parents chose not to appeal it." In Zone 3, there were also three exemptions denied at the school level, but so far, none of those parents have filled out the paperwork to appeal it.

"The principals are the people who know the parents best. They know the child's history; they know if they're making a legitimate request for exemption," says Baker. "In all the schools I've been to, whether it's been elementary or middle or high, it's been just a wave of uniforms."

School uniforms are often cited as helping to control discipline problems, curb school violence, and raise student achievement. The MCS board acknowledged last spring that they didn't think school uniforms would solve all their problems, but they thought they would help. And they seem to. In the past month, teachers have come before the board thanking them for giving the children a new pride in their appearance and a calmer environment.

But elsewhere in the country, the fashion seems to be changing. According to a September 13th New York Times article, at least 50 of the California schools that implemented mandatory uniforms in the 1990s have abandoned the idea in the last two years. Schools in Florida, Kansas, New Hampshire, and Utah have also forsaken required uniforms. At MCS, there are no official plans to study the effect of uniforms on student attendance, performance, or behavior. "There has not been a formal study requested from the board members," says Archer. "I think we probably will do something, if nothing more than an informal study to see if there are any trends that could be attributed to it."

Anecdotally, though, all the evidence points to the success of the policy.

"From the feedback we've gotten," says Baker, "parents seem to like it a great deal. It eliminates hassles for them."

District Attorneys Are Going To Jail

New program hopes to weed out unnecessary charges.

By Mary Cashiola

To cut the county's case- load and perhaps even reduce the jail population, the Shelby County district attorney's office is going into the jail to perform a type of "triage."

As part of a pilot initiative funded by the county commission, starting October 1st, assistant district attorneys will be in the intake area of the jail to approve all charges on the front end of the criminal-justice system. They want to make sure the district attorney's office has enough evidence to prosecute those arrested before they are booked.

"If the charges are wrong or not worth devoting the resources to, the earlier we kick them out of the system, the more time and the more money everyone saves," says Tom Henderson, chief prosecutor for General Sessions Court and Juvenile Court.

In Shelby County, major crimes are handled and charged within an investigative bureau. Minor crimes, however, are handled and charged by uniform officers.

"Unlike many large cities, we've abdicated our responsibility over charging decisions to uniformed police officers," says Henderson. Although Henderson says that's the way it's been done in the past, and the district attorney's office hasn't had enough personnel to do it, having police officers charge suspects sometimes results in a wrong charge, both in over- and undercharging the suspect.

"This program was done on an experimental basis using volunteers," says Henderson, "and this was in the old jail, not the new annex. We found we were correcting a lot of charges."

If everyone in the system knows the charges are going to be dismissed when the case gets to court, it saves time all around to kick the case out beforehand. Previously, members of the prosecution would not see the charges until the case had made its way to the court docket, after the suspect had been charged, booked, usually bailed out, and had even hired a lawyer.

"If the case is something like public intoxication or spitting on the sidewalk and we know it's going nowhere, why go through all that?" says Henderson.

Another example is a domestic-violence charge. By statute, during domestic-violence calls, officers have to make an arrest if anyone in a home has been injured. Even if the couple has no history of domestic violence and the injury is as minor as a slap to the face, the officers have to take in one of the parties.

"They don't have a choice," says Henderson. "We do. We can make a judgment call if we know he or she's not going to get convicted."

Another example is when police pull over a car with several people inside and find one joint of marijuana. "Everybody knows we're not going to charge everyone in the car," says Henderson, "so why make everybody go through the entire booking process?"

The assistant district attorney won't actually be dealing with the suspects but will look over the officers' paperwork before they take it to the magistrate.

It helps that the new annex has an instant-fingerprinting system. With the system, an officer can know exactly who the suspect is, if they've ever been booked before, and if they're wanted in connection with anything else.

"We're not going to let anyone loose until we know who they are," says Henderson.

The district attorney's office has already filled one of the two positions slated by the county commission, but it will take eight assistant district attorneys to provide full coverage. Because they'll be making judgment calls and have a great deal of responsibility in deciding whether or not to dismiss the charges, Henderson says they'll be attorneys with a lot of experience.

The first one tapped is Dan Byer, a graduate of the University of Memphis law school and an assistant district attorney in the Major Crimes Prosecution Unit for five years. Most recently, he has been practicing law for an Internet-based company.

"Hopefully, we'll be there 24/7 one day," says Henderson.

School Centennial

Idlewild Elementary celebrates its 100th birthday.

By Mary Cashiola

In 1923, Leslie Brooks used to walk to Idlewild Elementary from his house on Carr. This Thursday, he'll be driving there in his white 1996 Mercury Marquis from the Kirby Pines retirement community.

"I'd walk by [Mayor Ed] Crump's place -- you know where that's at?" asks the 87-year-old Idlewild graduate. "Sometimes, I'd see him outside. In those days, I'd walk home for lunch."

The school at 1950 Linden, by some accounts the oldest in the city, kicks off a yearlong celebration for its 100th birthday Thursday with cake and a student-formed "100." But that's just the beginning; school officials are "desperately searching for alums," says Peggy Owen, a teacher at the school helping to find them. They know of many of the schools' alumni who graduated in the 1950s and '60s but are looking for others, like Brooks, who went there during the '20s, '30s, and '40s. There is no existing complete record of alumni from Idlewild.

"I happen to know a lot of alums," says Owen, "because I've been teaching here 20 years and there's a lot of alums in my family. We're trying to find as many as we can."

Brooks started attending Idlewild in 1923 when he was in third grade and graduated from it in 1929 as an eighth-grader. He says he had a fine time there.

"There were good teachers. I've written down about seven of them and about 40 names of pupils I remember," says Brooks. "I was just going over the list to see the ones that I knew had died. The rest of them I don't know more than you whether they're alive. I imagine most of them have died."

Brooks -- who says people call him Les because he isn't very big -- recalls playing with marbles and spinning tops on the playground and a principal with a mustache who would call the students in from recess by ringing a big dinner bell.

Several times, Brooks ordered ice cream from the corner store at Peabody and Cooper to be delivered to the principal's house as a prank. He never got caught. "They delivered back then, and we thought it was fun," he says.

As part of the yearlong celebration, the school is planning an alumni picnic, a silent auction, and several speakers. They also plan to honor the oldest living alumnus -- right now it might be Brooks, but it's still early in the process -- but Owen says they just want the alums to come celebrate, no matter what their age. "They're all important, no matter how old they are. Idlewild's an elementary school, so an alum can be 12."

The committee is hoping to get school memorabilia from its former students for a display as well as donated items for a spring auction. "We'd also like them to come back and talk to the students, whether it's a class or a grade," says Owen. "I think it helps students realize that there's a tie, a continuity in education between them and adults. ... If they're 75 or 20 or whatever, it's important for them to say to the students, 'I sat in a chair just like you're sitting in. Math was hard, but I stuck with it and now I'm a CPA."

"We're just at the gathering stages right now," says Owen, "but the more alumni we know, the more fun it will be."

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