BOE member wants to revisit SRO, security programs

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A member of the Knox County Board of Education has drafted a proposal to have the school system’s relationship with law enforcement be redefined through a fully public process. 

Daniel Watson, District 3, is asking that Knox County Schools review its Memorandum of Agreement with the Knoxville Police Department and Knox County Sheriff’s Office, both of which provide Student Resource Officers (SROs) for deployment on campuses.

Evetty Satterfield, who represents District 1, is co-sponsoring the resolution. 

School security issues have come under intense scrutiny since 17-year-old Anthony Thompson was shot and killed during a confrontation with four KPD officers in a restroom at Austin-East Magnet High School on April 12. Thompson was carrying a pistol that was fired while he struggled with the officers, who were there to take him into custody for assaulting his estranged girlfriend on campus a few hours previously. After Thompson’s gun fired, one of the KPD a officers drew his gun and opened fire, killing Thompson and wounding the school’s SRO. 

Numerous protests and rallies have taken place since the shooting. The TBI and District Attorney General Charme Allen have cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing in connection with the shooting, much to the chagrin of police critics who are demanding the officers face criminal charges. 

Thompson was the fifth Austin-East student to die this semester from gun violence. Although his shooting was the first to take place on school property or to involve the police, the relationship between the community and KPD had already been strained both by a failure to solve all the other killings and by more aggressive tactics that were adopted on- and off-campus. 

Watson said he’s been digging into school security and safety issues since joining the Board last year and was surprised by what he’s learned.

For one thing, he hadn’t realized how large the armed security force in the county’s school was: 105 security officers directly employed by the school system, plus the Student Resource Officers provided by the Knox County Sheriff’s Office (26) and the Knoxville Police Department (14).

Daniel Watson

Watson also said he learned the Memorandum of Agreement that defines the relationship between the school system and law enforcement agencies wasn’t developed with input from the community and has been heavily influenced by the many school shootings that have occurred on campuses across the nation.

Knox County Schools first partnered with KPD and KCSO in 1999. The relationship was in response to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entering Columbine High School and murdering 12 students and one teacher in Colorado on April 20, 1999, according to Watson’s resolution. 

In response to Adam Lanza entering Sandy Hook Elementary School and murdering 20 students and 6 teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, the school system expanded its own security division to include at least one trained, armed and uniformed officer in every K-12 school.

“What I’ve learned is it’s never been a publicly informed process. It was last renewed in 2019 and there was no student representation, no parent representation,” he said. “The community needs to have a voice at the table, to bring their voices and their ideas to the table and not to just be told how things are going to be done.”

Watson said he’s not trying to change any specific part of the agreement between the schools and law enforcement. “It’s not for me to say all the things that need to change. This is to say, ‘Let’s be transparent, let’s see what comes out of it.’  I think whatever we come up will be better than what we have now, because that’s what happens anytime we have the community involved,” he said.

The timing of the proposal wasn’t triggered by this year’s series of fatal shootings that have killed five students at Austin-East Magnet High School, Watson said, but it’s hoped that the ensuing outrage will motivate people to get involved in the process. 

The timing was, however, influenced by the pending departure of the school system’s longtime security chief, Gus Paidousis, he said. Paidousis has exerted tremendous influence on how security in the schools is handled and presumably his successor will want to have some say in the agreement. 

The resolution recognizes the historically compounded trauma that students of color have experienced in the United States and the trauma which can be experienced by special education students, immigrant students and students with disabilities when engaging with law enforcement officers.

When contacted by email for comment on the resolution, Satterfield replied: “I am sure we’ll have a healthy discussion on Wednesday.”

School system officials didn’t respond to a request for comment on the resolution. 

The School Board will discuss the proposed resolution at its work session Wednesday at the City-County Building and is expected to vote on the measure at its May 12 session at the Andrew Johnson Building.

CORRECTION: This story originally stated that Gus Paidousis has been “the first and only” chief of security for the Knox County school system. This is incorrect. He took over the position from Steve Griffin in 2013 (Griffin, in turn, had followed Raz Scruggs). We apologize for the error, and we thank Knox County Schools spokesperson Carly Harrington for providing us with the correct information. 

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

Jenna Stambaugh can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com 

Published on May 4, 2021