MEMPHIS, Tenn. — There’s been some debate over whether absenteeism or truancy in Memphis-Shelby County Schools is to blame for young people committing more crimes.
Juvenile crime is a problem that continues to plague both Memphis and Shelby County. During an appearance on WREG’s Live at 9, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said juvenile crime is rising at an alarming rate.
“What’s different is after the pandemic juvenile crime has just skyrocketed and it’s getting worse. It’s almost like a ball rolling down a hill,” he said.
The mayor said young people who are not in school and a court system not making them more accountable are a big part of the blame.
“And really the truant kids who’ve not engaged in school ever since the pandemic are getting involved in gangs and doing more violent things, and they’re not held and detained in court, and there’s little intervention. That court has got to start detaining them,” Strickland said.
Memphis Police Chief CJ Davis told Memphis City Council members Tuesday that 105,000 students enrolled in MSCS, about 25% — around 25,000 children — are chronically absent.
Many of the students in the district are homeless, or travel from home to home, Davis said. Statistics don’t show how many of those students are involved in juvenile crime.
While the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office provides school resource officers in some MSCS schools, it is MPD that deals with them when they are not in school, Davis said.
“We end up with children in our laps because of the fact that they’re not in school. So we work closer, I believe with the Juvenile Court system,” Davis said.
Councilman Edmund Ford Sr., who operates a funeral home, says he is tired of seeing the end result of truancy.
“I’m in the funeral business, ok,” Ford said. “I’m kind of tired of burying 13, 14, 15, 16-year-old children that should’ve been in school. I’m handling services of someone right now that stole a car, they got burned up in the car. I just buried one last week, 15 years old. Should’ve been in school, but he was out flashing money.”
Memphis-Shelby County School absenteeism and truancy were also front and center at a Shelby County Commission committee meeting Wednesday.
“Who’s role is it to make sure there’s a follow-up as some of those supports and needs for the families,” said Shelby County Commissioner Shante Avant.
They talked about the problem of not only the child not being in school but also issues addressing the entire family such as homelessness and food insecurities.
“We cannot criminalize truancy. We need to go after parents who are not sending their children to school, but for parents who are legitimately trying their best who are experiencing homelessness, housing instability, food insecurity, transportation issues, health issues,” said Shawn Page, MSCS Chief of Academic Operations. “That’s not what Juvenile Court is going to do. I’ve talked to Judge Sugarmon and that’s not his intent and not ours.”
Mayor Strickland said his administration is working with the juvenile court, Youth Villages, and other groups and is asking for a $6 million grant from the state for intervention
“With the young person and the parent and interact with them several times a week. What can we do for them? Is it a job? is it counseling? What is the need that is there to turn the child around,” Strickland said.