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After Memphis students witness shooting near Kingsbury, parents demand changes

About a dozen people stand outside at night in a semi-circle holding candles during a candlelight vigil in front of a community center.
After four people were shot near Kingsbury Middle School on Monday afternoon, community members gathered at a vigil to grieve, reflect, and discuss how to keep children in the neighborhood safe.
Cathryn Stout / Chalkbeat

One student was standing outside when she saw the gunman and raced back into the building. The other heard the gunshots from a block away and rushed to the scene to find her little brother, who was safe. The third sat in shock inside the building and watched the chaos erupt through a window.

The three middle schoolers shared their stories during a Monday night vigil after four people were shot earlier in the day outside of Streets Ministries near Kingsbury Middle School.

With the support of about three dozen relatives and community members, students gathered at the scene to grieve, reflect, and organize against the violence strangling their neighborhood and schools.

According to the police, the incident occurred Monday at 2:43 p.m., just after school dismissal. A botched drug deal and an argument over a gun led to the shooting in front of Streets Ministries, a faith-based educational nonprofit. Two teens and one adult were transported to area hospitals in noncritical condition. A third teen, who was shot in the chest, was transported to Regional One Health in critical condition and by Tuesday afternoon had been upgraded to serious condition, according to a Regional One spokesperson.

The police have charged Erik Sandoval, 19, with two counts of attempted second-degree murder; Steven Austin, 18, who was also shot during the conflict, with five counts of attempted second-degree murder; and a 17-year-old with attempted second-degree murder. Chalkbeat does not publish the names of alleged youth offenders.

Monday’s shooting was the latest brush with violence to rock the cluster of Berclair schools: Kingsbury Elementary, Kingsbury Middle, and Kingsbury High. On Oct. 8, Kingsbury High went on lockdown following an unspecified threat. Police later determined that the threat was not credible and did not find any guns on campus.

Parents, already on high alert following the shooting at Cummings K-12 Optional School about a week earlier, were angry that they first learned about the Kingsbury lockdown via friends’ social media pages and their children instead of from the district.

“We find out through social media all the time. Anything that happens in these schools, we find out through social media,” said mom Amanda Hernandez during Monday’s vigil. “Our kids are the ones that communicate with us.”

Shelby County Schools regularly sends text messages and robocalls to parents following campus incidents, but sharing vetted updates before a school full of cellphone-savvy students proves a challenge for the district.

District officials said in a statement on Tuesday that social-emotional support was available for students and staff at Kingsbury schools.

During Monday’s vigil, community activist Jose Salazar called for more police patrols after school. Salazar said that when trouble arises, it’s often after dismissal and during the walk home. His observations align with data from the U.S. Department of Justice showing that youth crime peaks at 3 p.m., occurring “most frequently in the hours immediately following the close of school on school days.” Officials said that more officers would be on campus this week as an extra precaution.

To address what some have called youth crime prime time, this summer Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney launched Safe Corridors, a neighborhood watch program to help increase community vigilance in the hours just before and after school. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a similar program on Monday.

Salazar, who graduated from all three Kingsbury schools and helped organize Monday’s vigil, said that some fights and violence could be prevented if school resource and police officers would walk the neighborhood more between 2 and 5 p.m.

“After school, they’re going to have to hire more security because the security they have is not enough,” he said. “We want to see changes.”

A spokesperson for the Memphis Police Department said that officials are working to provide the necessary coverage across the city. The department is currently about 400 officers short of its goal of 2,500 officers and is offering $15,000 signing bonuses for new recruits.

Reducing youth crime is one of the top concerns for local law enforcement officials. As of Sept. 30, Shelby County suspects under the age of 18 have allegedly committed four murders this year, six sexual assaults of minors, and 19 incidents involving the threat or use of a deadly weapon, according to Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich.

New Memphis Police Chief C.J. Davis, who is also focused on reducing youth crime, recently told reporters that she is open to new initiatives to improve safety in and around schools.

Salazar said the community is going to continue to push for changes beyond Monday. Concerned citizens met Tuesday night at La Guadalupana restaurant on Summer Ave. to organize. On Nov. 2, el Día de los Muertos, Black and Latino activists are planning a public demonstration to remember those lost to violence and demand change.

“We’re tired of the violence,” added Salazar. “We don’t want our kids exposed to this kind of thing.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to note a second arrest in the case.

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