City Reporter 

City Reporter

Dealing with Death

One of Memphis' finest takes his life.

By Janel Davis

Last week's suicide by a Memphis police officer has caused union officials to reexamine their procedures dealing with troubled officers.

Michael W. Wilson, an officer with the Special Traffic Enforcement Unit, was found with a gunshot wound to the head fired from his police service revolver. According to Wilson's personnel file, his problems began when another family member charged him with assault, a charge that led to his termination from the department in January.

The charges against him were dropped before a conviction was handed down. Nevertheless, Wilson was still fired. "We are firing our officers after they get charged, but the policy with the city says that [an officer] cannot be convicted of a felony and be a police officer, not accused of a felony," said Memphis Police Association president Samuel Williams. "So what we've been trying to get the police department to do is wait until the officer goes to court to see if they will be exonerated of the charges."

Wilson was reinstated to the police force in June with back pay. According to Williams, by then, the stress of the process had apparently become too much for Wilson to handle.

On August 12th, Wilson left a handwritten, signed memo with his commanding officer, Inspector Bobby Todd, stating, "To whom it may concern: I am requesting a medical leave of absence due to the fact I have 'lost my mind' from the actions inflicted on me by the Memphis Police Department. Lawsuit pending." Todd then ordered Wilson from the West Precinct premises.

"Officers see a lot of things and have a lot of problems," said Williams. "This officer had 14 years' [experience], and in 14 years of running in the streets as a police officer, you encounter a lot of things."

Williams also cited the department's failure to provide Wilson with any counseling or psychological assistance after he turned in the memo in August. "That is one of my problems with the [MPD]. I think that this department and this administration have not been sympathetic toward officers at all. And this is not an isolated case. There are other cases that need some attention. I'm hoping that the director and his staff will look at these cases, because if I know them, they should know them too," he said.

The MPD Policy and Procedures manual's Internal Integrity section outlines the role of the Employee Assistance Unit, the governing body of the Employee Assistance Program. The manual states that the duties of the unit are to provide "free voluntary, confidential counseling and crisis intervention for police officers and their families. Counseling provided will be short-term and performance-oriented including an objective computerized monitoring system on performance. Long-term problems will be referred to outside programs and resources."

Wilson's file also included his admittance, during a 1998 disciplinary hearing, to being under a "great deal of emotional stress because his father, mother, and sister were addicted to cocaine." At that time, Wilson sought help from the departmental psychologist.

According to the National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation, an officer in the United States commits suicide every 22 hours.

Grading the Tests

School district examines its assessment methods.

By Mary Cashiola

During the current school year, Memphis City Schools (MCS) will spend about $400,000 administering 37 assessments to its students. Of the assessments, which include the Gateway and the TCAP, 32 are mandated by the state.

MCS commissioner Carl Johnson presented the information last Monday as part of the board's performance-assessment committee. The committee has been meeting since March to look at issues surrounding the district's high-stakes testing, including how much it costs and how MCS student scores could be improved.

According to the report, the number of assessments administered this year increased 740 percent over the 1991-1992 school year; in that time period, the district administered just five assessments.

Judith Morgan, a spokesperson for the state department of education, said that 32 is fewer tests than were originally written into state law. "The state was going to require an end-of-course test for every academic subject in high school, but then it became apparent that was financially impossible." Even now, several required tests have not been fully developed by the state because of budgetary shortfalls. As soon as those are done, they too will be implemented.

"Without a radical shift in the current federal and state political climate and demands for accountability to ensure 'no child is left behind,' the current forms and methods of testing appear to be entrenched," reads the committee's report. Because of the state's 1992 Education Improvement Act and the new federal guidelines through No Child Left Behind, Tennessee school districts are facing increasing levels of accountability.

"We want to continue to monitor and align our curriculum with the state assessment program," said Johnson. "We should continue to monitor the implementation of the district curriculum." Other recommendations included districtwide six-week assessments that would be indicative of items on state-mandated achievement tests and provide immediate feedback on student progress.

Commissioner Barbara Prescott commended the report: "It's important that the public knows how much we actually do test our children."

Weighing in

Legislature considers bills to reduce obesity.

By Janel Davis

"Fatty, Fatty 2-BY-4 Can't get through the bathroom door!"

This common refrain from a cruel childhood taunt may become only a painful memory if legislators can pass a bill aimed at reducing obesity, particularly among children and adolescents.

The Improved Nutrition and Physical Activity Act (IMPACT) was introduced by U.S. Senator Bill Frist (R-TN), along with senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Christopher Dodd (D-CT). According to Senate spokesperson Jude McCartin, the bill is currently pending in the Senate. "We had hoped that the bill would have been [turned over] to a health committee, but unfortunately, that hasn't happened yet."

The bill calls for fiscal year 2003 expenditures of more than $256 million, including: $10 million for training of health professionals to identify children at risk for obesity and the treatment and prevention of these conditions; $40 million to assist communities in promoting good nutrition and physical activity; and $40 million for state education departments to develop curricula on healthy nutrition and activity choices.

"This bill is about giving Americans the facts they need to make informed choices," said Frist. "With obesity rates rising among both juvenile and adult populations, it's critical that we improve awareness of healthy behavior and the health concerns related to obesity."

As another health initiative, the Tennessee School Health Coalition has organized the "Fit for the Future: Promoting Physical Activity and Health" conference, October 11th through 13th, on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.

The conference will provide workshops on assessing fitness levels among students and implement activities to improve those levels.

The 2001 Youth Risk Behavior Survey on nutrition/obesity and physical activity among high school students found that 13 percent of adolescents were overweight, with another 14 percent at risk for becoming overweight.

Taking Their Time

Audit gives anyone a chance to air gripes with city school system.

By Mary Cashiola

Every two weeks or so, Memphis City Schools parents and community members can address the school board for a whopping three minutes each. They'll get six if someone else concedes their time to them (usually husband-and-wife teams), but six minutes, and six minutes only, is the max for every single gripe, problem, criticism, and the like.

Last Thursday, parents and community members, even reporters, had ample time to skirt the walls of the Frances Coe Auditorium and write -- on large sheets of paper posted on the wall -- everything wrong and right with the urban district. What they said will be included in the independent management audit on the district being done by MGT of America.

At the door, MGT staff asked people to sign in, handed them a big marker, and then told them to go to work. All the comments were kept anonymous, and many people wandered from tablet to tablet reading all the other comments that had been made.

"Our company has 25 years of experience," said Dr. JoAnn Cox, a senior associate with MGT and an assistant project director for the study. "There are some people [who], if you hand them the microphone, will stand up there grandstanding. Then everyone else has to wait around, and you're there all night. This way, everyone can get a chance."

With funding from local businesses and Partners in Public Education, Watson asked for the audit in April to see if there might be ways for the district to improve management, save money, and enhance efficiency.

Along with the written comments, MGT was also taking statements verbally (if anyone didn't want to write them out) and via the district's Web site. MGT was also passing out a questionnaire that could be mulled over, filled out, and then faxed back.

"There are four ways people can participate," said Cox. "There's no reason for anyone to say that they didn't get a chance to be a part of the process."

Cinda Harrell was one of the parents participating in the process. The mother of two said she met with the superintendent to discuss her problem -- her children go to different schools because one was granted a transfer and the other was not -- and called the posted comments "depressing."

"I came here not necessarily to be critical but to offer some constructive criticism. After seeing everything that's been written, my problems seem minor," she said. "The district seems to be in pretty bad shape."

By taking written comments on everything from food service to district management to transportation, Cox said the group is likely to get more positive feedback as well as more constructive criticism than it would with a town-hall meeting.

"This is just one ingredient in a larger recipe," said Cox. "Two weeks ago, we had a smaller diagnostic team come out. They interviewed central office workers, parents, and people in the community, and then they reported it back to the larger team, and we started doing our homework."

In the process, MGT will compare the Memphis school district with similar districts, such as those in Baltimore, Dallas, and Cleveland, as well as others within Tennessee, such as the systems in Shelby County and Knox County.

"A lot of things concern me in this district," said Harrell, whose children were recently annexed into the city system. "I'm concerned for my children. I want to be a supportive parent, but it seems like the work that needs to be done, I'm not sure the management can complete. I think it will take a generation to make these changes."

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