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After two shootings, Memphis superintendent asks parents, community for help

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray speaks with members of the press outside of Metropolitan Baptist Church.
After two shootings in and near Memphis schools, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray is asking parents and the greater community for help to stop gun violence.
Cathryn Stout / Chalkbeat

After an increase in gun violence in Memphis schools and surrounding neighborhoods, the leader of Tennessee’s largest school district is pleading with parents and community members to support the district’s efforts to prevent further violence.

In an open letter to Shelby County Schools parents on Monday, Superintendent Joris Ray called attention to a recent uptick in violence in Memphis and across the nation now that the majority of U.S. schools have returned to in-person learning.

Although Ray pledged to continue bolstering resources to support the district’s more than 110,000 students’ safety and mental health, he said the district needs the entire community’s help to make real change.

“Before children can learn, they must first feel SAFE,” Ray wrote, urging parents to monitor their children’s behavior and social media, ensure they feel supported and know they don’t have to be self-reliant, and keep any guns at home safe and secure, among several other suggestions.

“I am sounding the alarm,” he said. “Mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers, cousins, and neighbors, this work has begun in earnest, and we need you to be vigilant.”

And while the district is focused on progressive discipline and restorative practices that give students opportunities to reset their classroom behavior before a situation escalates, Ray emphasized that weapons are not tolerated in schools and administrators will take appropriate action for disruptive behavior.

Monday’s letter comes a week after a shooting near Kingsbury Middle School injured four people and a month after a shooting inside a South Memphis school left a 13-year-old boy hospitalized, a fellow student in custody, and a community grappling to process such violence amid another turbulent pandemic school year.

Although 99% of Shelby County Schools students are “getting it right,” Ray said — masked, in class, on task, and learning — the district continues to strive to reach the “challenged 1%.”

Since becoming superintendent three years ago, Ray touted his and the school board’s nearly $100 million investment in social-emotional learning and conflict resolution curriculum. The money has also allowed the district to increase the number of social workers and behavioral specialists in school, Ray said, as well as expand the number of ReSET Rooms where students go to regroup after a behavioral issue, hire more assistants, implement tele-therapy and a social-emotional hotline for students and families, hire more truancy staff, and develop a plan for three new evening mental health centers.

As part of efforts to keep students engaged this school year, Ray said the district plans to continue tutoring programs for students K-12 before, during, and after school, and it will relaunch internships and externships with community partners this spring.

He encouraged parents to reach out to their school with questions, visit scsk12.org/instructionalresources/sel for social-emotional resources, or call the SCS Social Emotional Support Line at 901-416-8484.

“We all love and want what is best for the children of Memphis-Shelby County Schools,” Ray wrote. “Support is always available.”

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