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Memphis students present demands on school safety in wake of Parkland shooting

walkouts, gun violence
Memphis students walked out of class last week to call attention to gun violence.
Caroline Bauman

Students presented a list of requests to the Shelby County Schools board related to safety, including improving student discipline practices, hiring more school counselors, offering conflict resolution classes, and help in advocating against giving guns to teachers.

The list was created after walkouts last week at about 20 Memphis high schools in response to the killing of 17 people in February in Parkland, Florida.

Student leaders from five high schools gave a presentation Tuesday evening at a school board meeting, which was met with applause from district leaders.

“We ask that youth are visibly and vocally involved in decision making. We are the ones sitting in the classroom day after day,” said Mallori King, a junior at Ridgeway High School. “Youth voice should not look like tokenism. It should look like equity.”

The walkouts — that received the district’s blessing — also honored the 19th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. Since the school shootings in Parkland, students around the country have demanded lawmakers take action against gun violence.

In the students’ words, they want the board to:

  • Stop kicking students out of school instead of figuring out what’s going on.
  • Make time for teachers and administrators to have one-on-one time with students so they can truly get to know them.
  • We need more counselors and support groups.
  • We want a conflict resolution class to be taught in school.
  • We want a class on mental health to be taught in school.
  • Do more to stop sexual harassment and assault from happening in our schools.
  • Please do not arm our teachers. Help us prevent this from happening.
  • Keep supporting student activism and student voice in Shelby County Schools.

Savanah Thompson, a freshman at White Station High School, said support for students, such as more school counselors, and a mental health and conflict resolution class, would most effectively prevent violence in schools.

“People with mental health issues are not the problem. The lack of resources for people with mental health issues, such as myself, is the problem,” she said.

LaDiva Coleman, a senior at Freedom Preparatory Academy, spoke against a recent legislative effort to arm teachers with guns, an effort lawmakers say could make students safer but is adamantly opposed by many educators.

“Arming teachers with guns will not make us safer because we don’t know what’s going in teacher’s minds during the day,” she said. “If a student can shoot other students with guns, so can teachers.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he would review the district’s sexual harassment policy, which he conceded is not specific about student-to-student protocol. He also called the mental health class “a wonderful suggestion.”

Students unrelated to the list of requests asked board members during the meeting to allow a student representative on the board. Hopson said that would be an “easy win” and “would work with the school board to see if that can happen.”

“I’m very impressed and very proud of our students,” Hopson said after the meeting. “They want their voices to be heard.”

The district’s proposed budget, which heads to county commissioners for approval next month, already addresses some of the students’ requests. The $1 billion spending plan includes $4.3 million to hire 35 school counselors, and $800,000 to hire 10 more behavior specialists, who are charged with dealing with root causes of student misbehavior. The Memphis district has the highest rates of student suspension in the state and has been working in recent years to prevent that.

Notably missing from the students’ list was the main proposal county and district leaders have promoted as a key prevention of violence in schools: school resource officers, the armed district employees and sheriff deputies trained to work in schools.

County leaders, including Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, recently produced a report urging the county’s seven school systems to review their emergency plans and take stock of their school resources officers, but didn’t offer specific recommendations.

Hopson’s budget includes $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers, some of whom would be assigned to elementary schools for the first time. That’s on top of the 98 already in all of the district’s high schools and some middle schools.

Student leaders plan to accept more recommendations from students through their website:

This story has been updated with comment from Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

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