Tennessee governor, congressman discuss safety on visit to Jewish school that foiled armed intrusion

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and U.S. Rep. David Kustoff on Monday praised security measures at a Memphis Jewish school where a former student with a gun was stopped from entering the building in July, declaring strong safety procedures have become even more critical in light of the Israel-Hamas war.

Lee and Kustoff, both Republicans, spoke with students at Margolin Hebrew Academy-Feinstone Yeshiva of the South during a visit to the suburban school. Kustoff, who is Jewish and attended the school from kindergarten through 2nd grade, expressed support with Lee for Israel in the war that began when it was attacked by Hamas on Oct. 7.

Inside the one-story Memphis school, a sign saying “we stand with Israel” hangs on a hallway wall. Nearby, a bulletin board features names and photos of Israeli hostages as another sign of solidarity from the school's students and staff.

Before Lee and Kustoff addressed about 140 students, faculty and staff, Rabbi Yonasan Gersten led students in a song of prayer for people in captivity. Afterward, both politicians spoke with students about the school and activities such as history class and basketball.

Lee told the students to “raise their voices” in support of Israel.

“As difficult as it may be to look at the events that occurred on Oct. 7, what's more inappropriate is to turn away from looking at those events, is to not speak out,” Lee said.

Lee and Kustoff also mentioned the attempt by a former student to enter the school on July 31. Authorities say Joel Bowman, 33, was denied entry when he went to the school with a gun. Class was not in session but a limited number of staff and construction workers were there.

Police said Bowman walked around the exterior of the school and fired two shots at a contractor, who was not hit. Bowman then fired two more shots outside the school before driving away in a pickup truck, police said.

Officers tracked down Bowman a short drive from the school. He exited his truck and pointed the gun at an officer, who shot him in the chest, police said. Bowman was hospitalized in critical condition and has since recovered. He is now in custody at the Shelby County Jail.

A possible motive for the attempt to enter the school has not been disclosed. Bowman, who friends and lawyers say has mental health issues, has pleaded not guilty to charges including attempted second-degree murder.

Margolin School leaders said safety measures installed over recent years were a deterrent to the incident in July. The school has metal doors with electronic fob access, security cameras, and an emergency response system that allows police to be quickly notified of an active shooter.

After the shooting, security officials for the Jewish community said places of learning, synagogues and community centers in Memphis and around the U.S. have strengthened security in recent years following a spate of shootings at places where Jewish people gather in public.

More concerns emerged after the start of the Israel Hamas war. Kustoff pointed to statements about Jews posted on an internet discussion board has unnerved students at Cornell University and prompted officials to send police to guard a Jewish center and kosher dining hall at the Ithaca, New York, campus. President Joe Biden’s administration on Monday condemned what it says is an alarming increase in antisemitic incidents at U.S. schools and colleges.

“We can never take things for granted. We always have to be on our toes,” Kustoff said.

The school has received $200,000 from the federal Nonprofit Security Grant Program and state Houses of Worship grant program to bolster its security, officials said.

Tennessee’s Houses of Worship grant program funds security personnel for religious institutions. The federal program this year is providing $305 million nationally for security enhancements for nonprofits that are at high risk of terrorist or other extremist attack.

“By you showing us, the governor and me, what you all were able to do to prevent what could have been an awful tragedy on July 31, that's firsthand, personal stories that I can take back to my colleagues in Washington and say, ‘you know what, this works, and it’s money well spent,'” Kustoff said.