City Reporter 

City Reporter

Skippers in the Slammer?

District attorney says truancy is civil, not criminal, issue.

By Mary Cashiola

A study on juvenile crime first put the focus on the problem of truancy. Now, with the federal No Child Left Behind Act requiring that 95 percent of school students take state achievement tests, solving the problem is harder than ever.

But it wasn't so long ago that an initiative from Shelby County district attorney Bill Gibbons' office put children's faces on ads and billboards, warning that if kids don't go to school, their parents could go to jail.

With 18,000 students considered truant each year, have any parents seen the slammer?

"Yes," said John Sorrels, the assistant district attorney who handles all the county's truancy cases. "Not an extremely large number, but some parents have gone to jail; some have lost custody of their children."

However, Sorrels said, "Prosecution is our last resort. Many times, it's not 'I don't want to go to school.' It's 'I don't want to go to school because I don't have shoes.' .... There are so many reasons kids miss school."

Cases are first referred to the Truancy Assessment Center, a collaboration between the Memphis City Schools and the Memphis Police Department, for whatever social services can be offered. If that fails, the case is referred to Sorrels.

When the district attorney's office first began looking at truancy, it began prosecuting parents in three ways: the compulsory-attendance statute, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, or contributing to the neglect of a minor. The compulsory-attendance statute was a class C misdemeanor -- which can mean a $50 fine or 30 days in jail for each offense. The other charges are class A misdemeanors, which can result in up to 11 months and 29 days in jail and/or a $2,500 fine.

But anyone charged with a crime has the right to have the case submitted to a grand jury. "When we have some single mother who has never been arrested, she's not going to plead guilty and have a criminal record," said Sorrels. The case would instead go before the grand jury, delaying it three to six months. "Meanwhile, the child still isn't going to school."

Sorrells said his office realized jail wasn't the best option: "If you're a Criminal Court judge and you've got burglars, rapists, and murderers coming before you and you let the burglar out on probation because there's no room in the jail, why are you going to put a single mother in jail who can't get her kids to school?"

Instead, the district attorney charges both parents and children under a civil statute and calls all parties before the judge. Depending on the child's age, either the parent or the child is put under a court order to get the child to school. If the child has any more unexcused absences, the parent is in contempt of court, which can mean immediate jail time.

"Again, it's a last resort," said Sorrells. "Think of all the problems it creates. If Mom's in jail, does it really address the issue of why the car won't start in the morning?"

He continued, "I think with the billboards we're getting the word out. I've gotten a lot more calls from parents who tell me they don't want to go to jail. It's not rocket science. If [the child is] sick, fine, but we've got to have a doctor's note or something."


U of M buys Segway scooters for physical-plant workers.

By Mary Cashiola

With the coming addition of the FedEx Technology Institute on campus, some other areas of the University of Memphis decided they wanted to be on the cutting edge of technology too.

The university's physical-plant department has recently bought two Segway human transporters. The two-wheeled, electric-powered devices travel up to 12 mph and use a gyroscopic balancing mechanism to keep the driver upright.

"In the midst of our budget cuts," said Drew Schmitz, the department's communications specialist, "one way we think we can combat cuts and still maintain an efficient department is through new technology."

And the Segway definitely fits the bill as new technology, introduced with great fanfare in late 2001 as the transportation of the future. Designed for use on sidewalks, the two-wheeled Segway is battery-powered and carries a single standing rider.

"If we buy a pickup truck, it's going to cost us $20,000. We can get four Segways for that," said Schmitz. "You may not know they're equipped with three saddlebags." The device is perfect for employees who work in the lock shop, he said, explaining that they don't carry many tools with them and most of their jobs are one-person projects anyway.

So why can't they just walk? "Our campus is 1,100 acres," said Schmitz. "It's all [about] time. With the budget cutbacks, we're already pressed with a large amount of work orders."

The department is also considering the vehicles for the workers who repair lamps throughout the campus because the vehicles raise the driver a foot or so off the ground. A tall person on the Segway could drive from lamp to lamp without having to carry a stepladder.

"It's kind of like using golf carts," said Schmitz. "The department already has several of those, but we wanted to explore new technology."

Although the university already has the devices, they won't be seen zooming around campus until the end of April or early May, when employees are certified to use them.

Gold, Silver, and Bronze

Memphis Parent wins national awards.

Memphis Parent magazine picked up six awards in a national journalism competition sponsored by Parenting Publications of America (PPA). The awards were presented March 1st during PPA's annual conference in Los Angeles.

The awards recognize excellence in writing, photography, and design. In the 30,000 to 55,000 circulation category, Memphis Parent earned a second-place Silver Award for general excellence. Judges noted it was a "compelling publication" and the "topics are wide-ranging and original." The monthly magazine also received awards in the following categories:

· First place, News Feature: "Trading Retirement for Child Rearing," by Jane Schneider, editor.

· Second place, Column: "Living in the Moment," by Jane Schneider.

· Second place, Column -- Family Matters: "Work and Family" by Katherine Perry and Kathy Martin.

· Third place, Column -- Pub-lisher's/Editor's Note: "Living in the Moment" by Jane Schneider.

· Third place, Column -- Family Fun: "Day Tripping: Spring Beauties and Tasty Food Producers," by Jane Schneider, Linda Ricci, and Margie Sims.

Memphis Parent is produced by Contemporary Media, publisher of The Memphis Flyer and Memphis magazine. This year's Editorial and Design Awards drew more than 700 entries. Headquartered in Los Angeles, PPA is a nonprofit, national organization representing more than 150 parenting magazines and newspapers in the United States, Canada, and Australia.

From Brits to Barbecue

Upcoming events will place Memphis in national spotlight.

By Bianca Phillips

Every year, the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau promotes activities that will place our city under an international spotlight and draw more tourists here. And this year is no different. Upcoming events include the filming of a British reality show called ReBorn in the USA at the Gibson Lounge downtown, an episode of the Food Network's $40 a Day dedicated to cheap eats in the Bluff City, and a TV special with NBC's Today show weatherman Al Roker and his Memphis in May barbecue team, also to air on the Food Network.

ReBorn in the USA, which is scheduled to be filmed here March 26th-31st, is a reality series in which British one-hit-wonder pop stars are given a second chance at fame in seven major U.S. cities. They'll board a bus and stop off in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Detroit, Nashville, Cleveland, New York, and Memphis to perform for a live American audience and a British television audience.

The American audience will get vote for their favorite, but U.K. voters will have the final say about which performer is thrown off the show. The last two surviving contestants will be flown back to England for a live final showdown. The winner gets a renewed recording contract.

"The ReBorn in the USA people have already been here on a few scouting trips. They've been looking at locations and taking shots of the city. They went to a number of locations before they decided that the Gibson could best accommodate their crew of about 60 people and parking for their 10 trucks," said Denise DuBois-Taylor, vice president of communications and public relations for the CVB.

Also on the agenda for the city is an episode of the Food Network's travel-on-a-budget show, $40 a Day. Host Rachael Ray will dine at four local restaurants with a limit of $40 for the entire day. Taylor said the historic Arcade Restaurant and Huey's are on the list.

Finally, the Food Network will also air a 30-minute special focusing on the Today show's Al Roker and his Memphis in May barbecue team. This will be Roker's first time to participate in the contest, although he makes a yearly appearance.

Homefront Help

City council sets up hotline for military families.

By Bianca Phillips

From financial woes to a shortage of helping hands around the house, families of military reservists often experience a variety of difficulties when their loved ones are called up for active duty. But the Memphis City Council is hoping to provide some assistance to the families of the 499 men and women to date who have already been activated from Memphis.

The Homefront Helpline, a mobile phone line that was set up Monday, will provide nearly any kind of assistance needed by these military families. From help with utility bills to help mowing the lawn, the city council says they're prepared to do what is in their power to address each and every need called into the helpline.

Since many of the help requests may go beyond the scope of the council, they're asking for assistance from local businesses, civic groups, and other organizations that would be willing to donate their services.

"I think it's important that we as a community come together to help the families who are helping us," said council chair Brent Taylor, who is spearheading the project.

The mobile phone and service for the Helpline was donated by Cellular South. The line will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and can be reached at 461-USA1 (-8721).

A Tense Tenure

School board airs frustrations with new president.

By Mary Cashiola

After weeks of marathon meetings, the school board adjourned its latest meeting around 9 p.m. But commissioners spent most of the relatively short three-and-a-half-hour meeting bickering among themselves.
Tempers remain high between the board and its president Carl Johnson, resulting in one commissioner suggesting a five-minute recess to clear the air. Hubon Sandridge reiterated his previous threat to try to vote Johnson out of the position. “You are the person holding us up,” Sandridge told him. “If you can’t accept that we need someone else, do what’s right and serve the way you know you should.”
Other commissioners echoed Sandridge’s frustrations. Commissioner Michael Hooks Jr. told Johnson to “try harder” and Commissioner Lee Brown said he was uncomfortable with the way things were going. “We cannot have an orderly meeting if the president is not president,” said Brown. “I’m for respecting the position of president, but it seems to me, the problem is having respect for the person who is president.”
Johnson responded by saying, “The president called for committee reports. We’ve heard almost no committee reports, but we’ve spent an hour on something,” said Johnson. “Is that the president’s fault?”
The back and forth continued throughout the meeting. Since Johnson’s hard-won battle for the presidency, many of the other members on the board have complained about his communication skills. Especially at issue Monday night was the board’s committees. As president, Johnson’s job is to appoint members of the board to various committees, but some members felt he had not taken their preferences into account.
“I’m only on two committees,” said new board member Deni Hirsh. “One that only meets once a year and doesn’t seem to have much of a purpose, and the other is something that I know nothing about. ... I’ve been on this board for two months and I feel we have not moved forward.”
Johnson said he would reconsider the committee appointments.
“Some people mistake kindness for weakness. Maybe the president is being too kind,” said Johnson. “You don’t have to be stubborn or bull-headed to run the meeting.”
The board also voted to appoint citizens and members to a commission to study how to consolidate the two local school districts.

Eye in the Sky

Webcam offers views of FedExForum construction.

by Bianca Phillips

No more driving downtown to check on the progress of the new FedExForum. Grizzlies fans can now view construction of the arena on the forum’s new Web site,
The site, which officially launched last month, contains a link to a QuickTime video of arena construction, which can be viewed as a still image or as a moving picture that links together images taken every two hours.
“It’s an exciting way for people to monitor the progress of construction. Not everybody has an opportunity to go down to the site on a regular basis to see how it’s coming along,” said Mike Golub, senior vice president of business operations for the Grizzlies. “This gives visitors to the Web site a chance to see the progress in real time.”
The site also contains arena news, artists’ renderings, and a timeline of construction milestones. A countdown clock displays exactly how many days, hours, and minutes are left until the arena’s grand opening, currently slated for the fall of 2004.
The Web site will eventually serve as an employment center for future arena workers and will also contain a schedule of arena events.

Music Appreciation

VH1 sends Overton students to New York.

By Mary Cashiola

Sometimes peer pressure isn’t such a bad thing. For 16-year-old Ashley Williams, it got her a free trip to New York and a chance to meet Whoopi Goldberg.
Williams and fellow classmate Sophia Sopann were two of 18 students from across the country who were flown to New York by VH1’s Save the Music Foundation. The students were members of an orchestra that played during a Grammy-viewing party hosted by Goldberg.
“I wasn’t really into playing the violin at first,” said Williams. “Some of my friends wanted to do it, so I wanted to do it too.” She gradually began to like playing the instrument and now says her life would be dull without it.
And what could possibly be a better example of that than her first trip to New York?
“We stayed for a week practicing the music, but we also did a lot of sightseeing. We went to Carnegie Hall, Central Park, Times Square — it was awesome,” she said as the rest of the orchestra practiced a selection from Mozart behind her. “It was my first time on a plane too, so that was exciting.”
VH1’s Save the Music Foundation has helped restore public-school music education programs in 75 cities, including Memphis. Since 1999, local participant Time Warner and Save the Music have donated $360,000 in musical instruments to 14 local schools.

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