UPDATE: After our story aired, MSCS responded, “We work collaboratively with Juvenile Court and Judge Sugarmon in truancy matters affecting our families. There was a backlog of previous cases referred to Juvenile Court by MSCS from previous school years at the beginning of this school year. MSCS has referred 581 new cases to Juvenile Court so far this year, 426 cases last year, and 50 cases for the 2020-21 school year. MSCS received notice from Juvenile Court for the 2020-21 school year they were not hearing any cases.”
Earlier story is below.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Thousands of children are not going to school as juvenile crime rises at an alarming rate. Is there a connection?
One crime victim thinks so.
Dorian Berry said he stepped outside to find his Kia wasn’t in his Hickory Hill carport one Monday morning in January.
“I come outside to glass on the ground and no car,” Berry said. “I knew what we were looking at, at that point.”
Berry called police, and hours later someone spotted Berry’s vehicle in Whitehaven.
They told police four kids ditched it at an intersection and started casually walking down the street. Officers caught up to them and took all four into custody — a 12-, 13-, 14- and 15-year-old, none of them old enough to drive.
“It seemed like they gave chase. They hit something,” Berry said as he showed WREG how his car was returned. There were dents and scrapes, and the back window was busted.
He’s got one question: “Where are your parents?”
“Two or 3 o’clock, 10 o’clock, 9 o’clock on a Sunday night, I know where my child is,” he said. “It’s like, how can you be out here causing this havoc at 2 or 3 in the morning? You’re not accountable to be somewhere?”
Records we uncovered show at least three of the juveniles have a lengthy record. They are accused of crimes like burglary, unlawful possession of a weapon, and vehicle theft, at times they should have been home asleep or in school.
Our investigation shows at least one of them has been on the district’s list for truancy, starting in kindergarten.
“The kids aren’t being held accountable. The parents aren’t being held accountable,” Mayor Jim Strickland said at a press event earlier this year.
Strickland said he’s fed up. Last year, the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission reported more than 500 juveniles were arrested for a serious offense.
Strickland says children skipping school is part of the problem.
“There’s little intervention, and court has to start detaining them,” Strickland said on WREG’s Live at 9.
Memphis Shelby County Schools reports there are 105,000 students enrolled. One out of four are chronically absent, meaning they’ve missed 10% of school.
If five or more of those absences are unexcused, they’re truant. MSCS told us to submit an open records request for that number.
It’s information the Memphis City Council is also seeking.
“Crime is an issue. We are always talking about carjackings and teenagers stealing cars in the community. They should be in school. We are trying to find out where are these kids at this particular time,” said Council member Cheyenne Johnson.
MSCS recently appeared before the council to answer their questions and learned some children are missing class due to health, bullying, poor academic performance, or poverty. Some students are homeless or travel from home to home.
They say there are 10 truancy specialists covering the entire district.
“We are doing everything we can to make sure these students are in school,” said a district representative to the council in a meeting earlier this month.
But some council members are convinced more can be done.
“Who is responsible for securing the school, so that people are not bumping outside doors and skipping class once their parents think they are in school?” Council member Chase Carlisle asked.
“Basically our attendance department monitors that, so students go to class to class or homeroom and there is a roll call that is made,” an MSCS representative replied.
The district office says it’s contacted when a student is missing, and from there, they contact the parent. As a last resort, they visit the student’s home, sometimes calling on deputies or police to help.
MPD Chief CJ Davis said they will respond to calls from the district when a student is missing, but believes more resources need to be devoted to truancy.
“There really hasn’t been the conversation to close some of the gaps,” she said.
Tennessee law requires children ages 6 through 17 to attend school, and the school district must try to enforce attendance. MSCS said they will assess the student’s and family’s needs and connect them to the right support and services.
But if that doesn’t work, they can turn to Shelby County Juvenile Court, which reports 95 students were referred for truancy so far this school year. That’s way up compared to the 11 referred in 2020-2021, which was during the pandemic.
Parents with children 14 years or younger can also get in trouble for educational neglect, a class C misdemeanor.
Two hundred and five parents were charged this school year, which again drastically up since the pandemic.
Juvenile Court wouldn’t agree to an interview, only stating they have had “conversations with the mayor’s office.”
No one with MSCS would talk to us either, but representatives have stated they disagree with the mayor connecting juvenile crime to kids not being in school. They say this is an issue across the state and country.
“It’s getting to a point now that us as parents, we have to crack down,” said Berry.
He said he is trying to get to the bottom of what happened to his car and the kids who took it.
“It’s a reflection of the parents as well. Kids are going to be kids and do what they do. Come on man!” said Berry.