Knox Schools close as threats multiply

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The 60,000 students enrolled at Knox County Schools were told to stay home today while educators worked on how to implement a federal judge’s mask mandate to protect disabled children from COVID.

The decision came after a weekend that saw a growing number of parents and Right-wing activists threaten to — in the words of one prominent figure in the movement — “bring the Knox County Schools to a grinding halt.”

It’s been clear for months that the community is bitterly divided over whether the schools should be actively fighting the spread of COVID at all. But the most recent controversy has seen the rhetoric escalate to the point that some parents now wonder openly if their neighbors are willing to use violence to prevent the government from imposing measures meant to save lives.

“It’s really concerning me that an anti-mask group just met saying they need to bring Knox County Schools to a halt (to applause) and asked folks to block the entrances to schools with their cars — including not letting school buses in,” said State Representative Gloria Johnson in a social media post.

“This is not a group that cares about kids,” she added.

Johnson was referring to a gathering of anti-mask activists Sunday at West Hills/John Bynon Park where Kevin Hill, a local leader in the anti-mask movement, told the crowd they had a moral imperative to stop the government from imposing health mandates.   

“We’ve got to be like the Civil Rights warriors,” said Kevin Hill, who has emerged as one of the leading voices in the anti-mask movement. “Block the entrance to your children’s school with your car, that’s my suggestion.” 

Should anyone try to disrupt the schools, however, they may find that police are prepared to intervene at a moment’s notice, officials said after the rally.

“We are aware of the potential for demonstrations or protests surrounding the school mask mandate,” said Knoxville Police Department spokesperson Scott Erland. “We are monitoring the situation and will respond appropriately if any issues arise that warrant police presence or intervention.”

“Rogue judge’s order”

Much of the anti-mask contingent’s ire was directed against U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer, who issued the controversial order Friday. Greer’s ruling came as part of a lawsuit by the parents of four disabled Knox County Schools students who argue their children’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have been violated by the lack of a mandatory mask policy in the school system.

Greer was the subject of numerous online tirades on social media over the weekend, with one Facebook user going so far as to say that Greer “just signed his own death warrant!” 

Another Facebook user, Terry Winkles, said he received a visit from three federal law enforcement officers at his home for merely posting on Saturday that Greer’s “career was over” due to the decision. 

“They showed up today. Said they wanted to talk,” Winkles said in an email Saturday. “I told them they were on private property and if they didn’t have a warrant they needed to leave. One said no warrant but we just want to talk. I told them again no and they needed to leave. He then looked in a red folder and said, ‘Just know things said about judges can be…..’ I cut him off and again told them they were trespassing and needed to leave.”

When asked if the men showed any ID, Winkles said: “One I saw the badge on his belt. The other two flashed a badge. None identified themselves other than showing a badge. After the second time I told them to leave, one started pulling his shirt up so his gun could be seen… They also had to be told four times to leave because they were on private property. They wouldn’t leave until my father told them they’d been asked to leave and he grabbed his phone to start recording.”

Winkles said he has two children enrolled in a Knox County middle school and he intends to send them to school without masks when classes resume Tuesday. 

“I’m honestly pissed. I think a select few with money and connections went ‘judge shopping’ and got this judge on ‘senior status’ to issue a ruling,” Winkles said. “These four families are holding over 60,000 kids in our county hostage to their will against what our duly elected representatives have decided. I feel it’s completely political. I feel the Governor Lee needs to call a special session immediately so an actual law can be passed banning schools from having a mask mandate. That would stop this rogue judge’s order.”

Winkles said the four disabled students who have sued should take virtual classes rather than force other students to wear a mask. “My feeling is they had already chosen to do virtual school,” he said. “Their kids weren’t in the physical schools, so the case should have been dismissed for lack of standing.”

Winkles said his son is “medicated ADHD” and can’t wear a mask and succeed in the classroom. 

“Being forced to wear a mask makes him fidget. It diverts his attention, which interferes with his ability to learn,” Winkles said. “He has to have constant teacher interaction to keep him focused and bring him back to center. A mask makes him tug and pull at it. He constantly focused on it. Last year we had behavioral issues and poor grades. This year he’s been active and excelling in grades. This also include two positive office referrals already this year.”

Like many other anti-mask activists, Winkles believes the government has no right to try and save lives through abridging the “liberties” of others. 

“Next will be vaccine mandates,” he said. “It’s always something more. I feel this country is on the verge of another civil war. Tax legislators are already calling for it and a gubernatorial candidate there already has the documents drawn up.”

After Superintendent Bob Thomas announced that schools would be closed today, Winkles said the move wouldn’t affect any plans to prevent the mandate from being implemented. 

“I saw the email,” he said. “We are moving our parent involvement and plans to Tuesday if needed.”

A spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Justice didn’t answer a request from Hard Knox Wire seeking comment on Winkle’s alleged encounter with federal agents or whether federal authorities were investigating any possible threats against Greer. 

“A warped sense of freedom”

To part of the community, Winkles and other Right-leaning activists are to be admired for standing up to the government. Borrowing heavily from libertarian political philosophy and conspiracy theories, they genuinely seem to believe that mask mandates are part of some malevolent plot by the government. 

To others, however, the anti-mask movement is largely made up of people who don’t understand medical science, don’t understand the law, and either don’t understand or don’t care that their actions could end up killing other people. 

How, they asked, has our society reached a point where being told to wear a cloth mask to avoid spreading germs could be called “tyranny?”

In the days leading to the lawsuit and Greer’s decision, their side staged demonstrations, petitioned the Board of Education, and even kept their kids home from school in order to protest the lack of a mask mandate.

One of the pro-mask leaders, Eric Moore of North Knoxville, is the father of seven children (six of them school age). As far as he’s concerned, Greer’s decision was a long-overdue dose of sanity. Immediately following Greer’s decision on Friday, Moore predicted that anti-maskers would retaliate by disrupting the operation of schools.

“I have no doubt that anti-maskers will frame the ensuing confusion as a reason why safety measures should never be required,” he said. “But let’s get ahead of that and call a spade a spade. Any issues that occur at schools will be the result of unreasonable, irresponsible actors continuing to pursue freedom without responsibility, and blaming the rest of us when the inevitable bad outcomes follow.”

The lack of anti-COVID protocols has caused hundreds if not thousands of cases in Knox County and led to severe staffing issues at some schools, he said.

“Teachers, students have been left to fend for themselves as the leadership has abdicated responsibility. In fact, that has been the resounding theme of the pandemic in Tennessee – a warped sense of freedom without a hint of responsibility,” he said. 

“It is a sad day when a federal judge has to stand up for the basic civil rights of children with disabilities and the health and safety of our teachers and students and community,” he continued. “This should have been addressed before the year began by our school board and our executive and legislative branches. Because they all chose to put politics first, it took our only non-political branch of government to make the change we need.”

While Greer’s ruling “is a win for science and safety,” Moore said, “irresponsible political figures are actively calling for parents and children to disobey a federal judge, to disobey their principals and teachers at school.”

“That’s a genie that can’t be put back in the bottle,” he said. “How they expect their children to disobey teachers and principals on one issue but honor them on others, I can’t fathom. How will schools ensure students follow protocol? What will happen if and when students and parents put teachers and administrators in the unenviable position of being forced to turn COVID safety protocols into a behavior issue?”

“Where we draw the line”

The most visible pro-masking group in Knox County is KCS-PASS, a non-profit founded by former Knox County educator Amanda Collins. 

Over the weekend, volunteers with Collins’s group collected face masks and delivered them to teachers so classrooms wouldn’t run short of them when school resumes.

“When the order came through Friday, we knew this week was going to be chaotic because people were already mad,” she said. “So many people were saying they were going to send their kids to school without masks… We knew that one way we could support the schools without being in their way — because we can’t stand there and do hand-to-hand combat with people, we don’t do that — was to make sure they had masks on hand to be able to remedy that barrier. We could do exactly what we did today, which was to do drop-offs to staff members and coordinate donations.”

Collins — who recently helped organize pro-mask demonstrations — encouraged Winkles, Hill, and others anti-mask activists to make their voices heard and protest the judge’s decision. 

“Go for it, do that,” she said. “I don’t even care if you do peaceful assembly near the school, which is exactly what we did. Do a ‘sick out’ for your kid, write the note and accept the consequence of an unexcused excused absence, all that is fine.”

She continued: “But none of that obstructs the education of any other student. None of that was antagonistic, confrontational, or violent. I encourage people to access their First Amendment rights to speech and assembly, but what (Hill) was recommending was not that.”

Collins said her group wants to support KCS employees who might be caught between the demands of their jobs and angry parents who may confront them.

“We know they are in a terrible position,” Collins said. “Honestly, no one likes wearing a mask. No school staff in any building I have ever been to likes having to monitor dress code issues… But when people are willing to come onto school grounds to disrupt school, then what was uncomfortable has become unsafe, and that is where we draw the line.” 

Sources told Hard Knox Wire that the decision to close schools today wasn’t made due to fears that classes could be disrupted.  Instead, Superintendent Thomas and the systems’s principals decided in a conference call that more time was needed to work out the logistics involved in implementing Greer’s order. 

Nonetheless, Collins hoped the extra day would allow tempers to cool somewhat and for people to think through the consequences of taking actions that could escalate to violence.

“Hopefully, what could have been tragic tomorrow will only be inconvenient on Tuesday,” she said.

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

Published on September 27, 2021.