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Police investigate a crime scene at night with police lights glowing

Police investigate the scene of a reported carjacking reportedly connected to a series of shootings Wednesday in Memphis. School leaders on Thursday called for more collaboration to deal with a spate of violence in the city.

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After Memphis shooting spree, school leaders call for collaboration to stem violence

For Shreya Ganesh, Thursday was supposed to be a day to focus on planning senior class events like the student body election. Instead, she and other students at White Station High School were dealing with the aftermath of another night of violence in Memphis — this time, a shooting spree across the city that left four people dead and three wounded.

But along with the shock, fear, and grief that reverberated through the school, Ganesh said, there was a feeling of comfort in watching students and staff come together to support one another through productive conversations.

The morning began with an announcement from her principal, who told students that resources were available for anyone who was struggling. Ganesh and her fellow seniors discussed the incident at length during their meeting, and her teachers brought up the incident during every class period.

“I feel like our school has a really large support system,” Ganesh said. “The way that it was such an open conversation and we talked about it in a group, it just makes you realize you’re not in it alone and everybody’s having the same fears that you are.” 

On Thursday, activists, school officials, and city leaders alike called for the community to similarly come together to find solutions to the violence that has flared across Memphis.

The series of shootings Wednesday paralyzed parts of the city as police searched for a suspect over several hours. Police later arrested and charged Ezekiel Kelly, 19, with killing one man, and said he is a suspect in the other deaths, according to The Commercial Appeal. He had been released from prison just six months earlier.

The shooting spree came just days after Eliza Fletcher, a pre-kindergarten teacher at St. Mary’s Episcopal School and mother of two, was kidnapped and killed during an early morning jog Friday.

In a message posted to social media Thursday morning, Memphis-Shelby County Schools’ interim superintendent, Toni Williams, sought to reassure families and employees. The district increased safety and security measures at all schools — including at Southwind High School, which was the target of a threatening social media post — and Williams promised officials would “continue to monitor and provide additional support to our schools.” 

“We understand that our students and staff may be upset and confused by what occurred — I believe the whole city is shaken — and we will encourage thoughtful discussion with a focus toward healing,” Williams wrote. “We have counselors, social workers, and mental health supports to assist our students and families.”

And in a tweet late Thursday afternoon, Williams encouraged the city to “channel our fears and frustrations following recent events into actions and solutions.”

Daniel Warner, a government teacher at East High School, began his classes Thursday by handing out small pieces of paper to all his students and posing a simple question: Given the recent events in our city, what are you bringing with you today? 

Students were free to write down some of the emotions. Warner didn’t collect the papers. He let students decide what to do with them: throw them away, keep them, or hand them to him if they needed help or support. They closed the exercise by saying some affirmations together.

“I just wanted to give them space to process whatever they were feeling,” Warner said. “Learning how to tend to their own hearts and spirits amid troubling events is something that’s going to really sustain them in their life.”

MSCS board Chair Michelle McKissack called for a comprehensive approach to crime and violence in Memphis. A day after district officials hit back at Mayor Jim Strickland for linking rising truancy and declining school enrollment to juvenile crime, McKissack suggested local elected officials should convene an emergency summit to explore solutions.

“It’s not just the one problem of getting guns off the streets or tackling truancy — it’s all of it,” McKissack said. “We’re operating too much in silos. We should not be making national news time after time.”

Board Vice Chair Althea Greene also said the district is focused on collaborating more with the county, Juvenile Court, and other organizations.

But on Thursday, Greene focused on Memphis students and families. She started her day at Promise Academy-Hollywood, where she said she witnessed a somber school drop off.

People looked tired, Greene said. Many parents waited in the car with their students until the school doors opened, rather than sending them off to line up in front of the school. One parent in a car was crying because she had lost two family members the night before.

Wednesday’s shooting spree was all students were talking about. That was also the case at the three other schools Greene visited Thursday morning during breakfast and in between lessons.

“They weren’t talking about reading and math today — they were talking about what happened in our city,” Greene said. “That’s just not the culture and climate we want for our students. So we’re going to have to work together as elected officials to change that and to make sure we put the correct policies and laws in place.” 

Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at swest@chalkbeat.org.