MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Gang tension fueled by three-quarters of a student body that is "economically disadvantaged" is at the root of the recent mob fights that have filled television screens and sullied the reputation of Shelby County Schools, according to sources of a WMC Action News 5 investigation.
To start making sense of the mob mentality -- and to start seeking ways to fix it -- we begin at Northwest Prep Academy, 1266 Poplar Ave. By SCS's own admission, it is the district's reform school. Two hundred and fifty of the district's most troubled students, plus students whose ages typically surpass their grade levels, come from schools all over the district for focused instruction.
Eleven of those students have been charged -- some as adults, some as juveniles -- in the attack at the BP gas station down the street from the academy April 10.
At our request, SCS allowed the WMC Action News 5 Investigators to tour Northwest Prep Academy with SCS Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. We quickly discovered a dichotomy that stigmatizes the students -- both fairly and unfairly -- as symbols of the mob mentality.
Inside, you'll find 'Men of Distinction' like 18-year-old Najee Taylor. A year ago, Southwind High School kicked him out for disorderly conduct.
A year later, he's suit-and-tied and college-bound for Tennessee Tech.
"I had my problems and poor academics," Taylor admitted. "But here at Northwest Prep, I have support, and people have my back and want to help me and see me be a better man in the future."
Outside Northwest Prep, we found a different story.
We ran video surveillance of the block that includes the academy and the BP station, one week after the April 10 attack. Despite Memphis police's beefed-up patrols and school administrators escorting students to MATA bus stops, Northwest Prep students either waiting on transportation or without transportation continued to loiter around the school's grounds and local retailers.
Our cameras captured an officer cuffing Northwest Prep senior Marshall Smith, placing him in the back of a squad car, then eventually releasing him with a citation for disorderly conduct.
"I feel like they're just trying to find something to mess with somebody over with," Smith said.
Records revealed Memphis police officers don't have to look very far to find something at Northwest Prep Academy.
According to police records, Memphis police have been called to the academy 46 times since August 2013. Fifteen of those calls were for student drug violations. Twelve were for simple assaults. Four involved felony weapons charges.
One call was for forcible rape.
"You know, it's a rowdy crowd," said Eric Hughes, a Crosstown/Midtown resident who lives a block away from the prep academy. "We're fed up with it."
A grandmother of one of the juveniles arrested and charged in connection with the April 10 attack attributed Northwest Prep's struggles to putting most of the district's troubled students under one roof. Her grandson, who's from Cordova and takes two MATA buses to and from the academy, had three active domestic violence cases against him that involve his mother when he was arrested in the BP station brawl.
"Some (of the students) have mental problems," said the grandmother, who requested not to be identified since her grandson is a minor. "You get all of them together ... you want to group them together and put them in a school, and you think there's not going to be a problem? There is a problem!"
"If you look at the data here, we've only had three fights here all year long," Hopson said of Northwest Prep. "So there's not a lot of disruption in the school. Once they leave school, and they're not under the district's watch, sometimes the kids act up."
Northwest Prep isn't even the worst SCS school for crime. Not even close.
An open records request initiated by WMC Action News 5 Investigator Jerry Askin revealed Wooddale High, Cordova High and Craigmont High are SCS's top three schools in student crime incidents (for those numbers, please click here).
SCS Communications Spokesperson Kristin Tallent also confirmed Cordova High and Craigmont High are among the schools whose student populations ballooned after Memphis and Shelby County's school districts merged in 2013.
T.J. Johnson, a former gang leader and drug kingpin who turned his life around as the first graduate of former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton's Second Chance felon-to-work program, is founder and director of the Memphis-based Wake Up Youth Foundation for troubled teens. He said the merger of Memphis and Shelby County Schools essentially forced rival gangs to mix, mingle and attend school together, creating what he described as "non-traditional" gang conflict.
"Due to economic issues, you couldn't stay where you wanted to stay," Johnson said. "So you may have a Crip staying right across the street from a Blood, a Vice Lord staying right across the street from a Gangster Disciple. So what they are doing is bringing it to a neighborhood clique. That's what you got at Hamilton High School. That's what you got at Northside. That's what you got at Manassas. That's what you got at Frayser, and that is the issue."
"The real issue, from my perspective, is poverty," said Hopson. According to SCS, 76 percent of its student body is categorized as "economically disadvantaged," qualifying for free meals, welfare benefits or Medicaid. "For many of these kids, reality is gangs and other things that are susceptible to poverty."
It's why Hopson and the SCS board have earmarked $3.5 million in the district's latest budget for early intervention.
"We're asking the county commission to invest in social workers, to invest in counselors, because we've got to start getting at the root cause of these problems," Hopson said.
Hopson added the community and schools need to publicly uphold those students who overcome those problems. He introduced us to Northwest Prep sophomore Ryonna Matthews, 16. She's the academy's Scholar of the Month.
She's also on schedule to graduate a year early in December with a 4.0 grade point average.
"The teachers, they are really helpful, and they'll do the one-on-one time, and the classes are longer. It helped a lot," Matthews said.
"This is a community issue," Hopson said. "If we do not get serious about supporting these kids ... not just the kids we saw in the (mob videos), but all these kids who are hurting, then we're going to continue to see the issues that we see."
Johnson's foundation specializes in rescuing teens who are deep into criminal behavior without a dependable parent or guardian, with a five-step system of prevention, intervention, community outreach, law enforcement and faith-based partnerships. Families in need can plug into the Wake Up Youth Foundation at no cost by contacting 901-370-HOPE or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Families can also call that same number to connect with F.A.C.E.S. of Memphis (Family Advocate Center & Empowerment Services). Its team of specialists and volunteers can help families with high-risk students navigate juvenile court, community service organizations, mental health facilities, school bureaucracies and systems of care.
"(Our family volunteers) themselves have navigated the system successfully, so they can draw from their own experiences and successes to help other parents," said Mona Ford, parent coordinator for F.A.C.E.S. of Memphis.