Austin-East torn by response to violence

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Sharon Couch can’t believe what her two sons are preparing to go through.

Her boys, one a senior and the other a sophomore at Austin East Magnet High School, will be required to use clear or mesh backpacks starting March 8. They could also be subject to random searches.

“It’s overreach,” said Couch, who works at the University of Tennessee’s Herbert College of Agriculture. “It’s not well thought out.”

The changes to school policy are due to the recent shooting deaths of three Austin-East students.

The issue, she said, is that none of the shootings took place on-campus. The problems lie outside the school, yet students feel as though they’re being punished for doing something wrong. 

When they’re attending classes, Austin-East student are in no more danger then they’d be at any other school in Knox County, according to Couch.

“The school is safe,” Couch said. “The things that are handled are the normal things at a high school.”

At its meeting today, the Knox County School Board is set to hear a presentation about using preventive education to counter violence. The presentation was requested by School Board member Evetty Satterfield, who represents the First District including Austin-East.

 Satterfield said Tuesday that a small number of parents have “reached out” to her with concerns about the new policies.

She stressed, however, that she didn’t want to second-guess the decisions of administrators, particularly Principal Nathan Langlois. 

“I know they have more insight, I know they have more information than I do as a Board member,” she said. “There may be more to this situation than needs to be made public.”

Like Couch, however, she noted that the incidents that have drawn so much attention to the school happened in the neighborhoods surrounding the campus rather than on school property.

There have been no threats of any kind to students on the Austin-East campus and it’s not clear how all the enhancements to on-site security can do anything about threats that exist several blocks away and after school hours, she said.

“The security in the school is excellent,” she said. “The issues aren’t there.” 

Satterfield hopes the enhanced security measures are temporary but said she doesn’t know if a decision has been made about how long they’ll be in place.

Many of the Austin-East community’s questions and concerns will be addressed at a  meeting between parents and the school’s administration that is scheduled to take place Thursday, she said.

Principal Langlois couldn’t be reached for comment for this article.

Currently, there are 493 students attending school in person and 264 students taking virtual classes due to COVID-19 precautions at the school, according to figures provided by the school system.

On Tuesday, Hard Knox Wire asked the Knox County Schools for data on any weapons violations or violent incidents — if any — that have occurred at Austin-East this year.

Schools spokeswoman Carly Harrington said Tuesday night that she didn’t have any of the requested statistical data. 

Harrington didn’t know if the transparent backpack rule at Austin-East would be permanent. “That will be a decision made at the school level,” she said. “I am not certain that decision has been made yet.”

Other schools in the district, including Richard Yoakley School and the Knoxville Adaptive Education Center, require students to use clear or mesh backpacks, she said.

The schools Harrington referred to, however, are special day schools for students whose behavioral problems require more intensive intervention than is available at regular school.

The Austin-East community is still very much in mourning over last month’s loss of 16-year-old Stanley Freeman Jr., who was killed while leaving school, and 15-year-old Janaria Muhammad, who was shot outside her home. Justin Taylor, 15, was allegedly shot by a friend in January.

Authorities are still looking for the killers of Freeman and Muhammad. East Knoxville residents have staged several memorials and community meetings demanding different police tactics and more social programs.

The incidents involving Austin-East students were only the most recent tragedies in the midst of an unprecedented surge of deadly violence that has touched almost every corner of the city.

There were 37 homicides in the city in 2020, more than the previous high of 35 in 1998.

Since Jan. 1 of this year, there have been 13 slayings, all of them involving firearms. By way of comparison, at this time last year there had been only three homicides. 

Although the killings over the past 14 months have been spread throughout the city, East Knoxville has seen more than its fair share.

The violence is nothing new.

For decades, the East Knoxville neighborhoods that feed into Austin-East have suffered endemic gang warfare as different armed groups have vied for control of illegal drug sales and other types of organized crime, such as prostitution.

Innocent bystanders, including children, have often been numbered among the hundreds of people killed or seriously wounded since the 1980s in the area known derisively to residents and beat cops as “The Gun Zone.”

On a nightly basis, gunfire rings out in the streets that surround the high school. Nearly every week, innocent men and women report that their houses or cars have been struck by rounds intended for someone else.

Even when the area is crawling with KPD units who are primed to expect conflict, the bullets still fly.

For instance, less than three hours after Muhammad was killed, multiple gunshots rang out in the 2000 block of Jefferson Ave., only blocks away from the girl’s home. Police later found more than 50 shell casings and several bullet holes in the rear of a house. No one was hit, and there was little they could do but take down names and mention in the subsequent report that it was “possible there is a link” to the girl’s slaying.

Many residents believe the problems in their inner city neighborhoods are usually ignored or even written off as normal by officials from more affluent, white neighborhoods. When tragedies like the Austin-East killings occur, there may be a spasm of attention from the media and politicians may vow to improve conditions in the hardest hit areas, but ultimately nothing changes.

City officials vowed this time will be different and immediately acted to funnel resources into programs meant to quell violence. Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon secured an emergency $1 million appropriation from City Council last week to fund such efforts.

For Couch, her two sons, and the hundreds of other families who’ve been directly affected by the tumultuous events of the past few weeks, there’s a disconnect between the recent tragedies and what feels like a backlash from authorities.

Her boys enrolled at Austin-East because they wished to take advantage of the magnet school’s special programs to develop their acting skills. Her oldest son, in fact, is set to go to the University of Tennessee next year on a Theater scholarship.

She feels like the school’s students are being treated like criminals when the violence isn’t an Austin-East problem at all. She plans to brings her concerns before the School Board at its meeting today.

“They’re being made to feel like it’s their fault,” Couch said.

Also Tuesday, the FBI offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the teens’ deaths.

Police have repeatedly asked the community for leads but no one has stepped forward with information.

Cliff Hightower may be reached at cliffhightower@hardknoxwire.com.

J.J. Stambaugh may be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on March 3, 2021

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