Knox Schools security chaos

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Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon at a hastily called Wednesday night press conference.

The future role of police officers in Knox County schools was up in the air Wednesday as officials tried to figure out how to rewrite a controversial agreement that governs the relationship between local law enforcement and the school system.

The most important development was arguably the Knoxville Police Department’s decision to unilaterally pull out of the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that specifies how the department and the Knox County Sheriff’s Office provide security to school campuses with their Student Resource Officers. Those officers, who are better known as SROs, undergo special training and are deployed full-time to school campuses. 

The announcement was a shock in many ways. Although the SRO program has come under fire in recent days, much of it stemming from the April 12 shooting death of a student at Austin-East Magnet High School, it has long been touted as one of KPD’s most popular and successful programs. 

Sheriff Tom Spangler said late Wednesday he had no plans to withdraw from the agreement.

“I’m releasing a statement at this late hour in response to the many calls, emails and requests I’ve received this evening in reference to officers being pulled from some Knox County Schools,” the sheriff said. “I took an oath to protect all Knox County Citizens.  I will abide by that oath as will our Deputies.  We will continue to protect our most vulnerable, which is our children.  I am NOT pulling any of our Deputies out of any Knox County School that we are currently in.”

During a Wednesday night press conference held online, Kincannon said that KPD’s SRO training will continue through the summer and she is looking forward to discussions for a new agreement.

Knoxville Police Chief Eve Thomas. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

“What this decision is saying is that we’re ready to have a discussion with the public, with the school system, with the school board, and other community stakeholders as to how best to deploy our law enforcement officers to protect and serve the people of this city …. It’s time to revisit the agreement and see how we can do better,” Kincannon said. 

 “The decision is that we’re just going to have more discussions,” she said. 

According to Kincannon, a number of factors played a role in her decision to pull out of the MOA. She also said that she didn’t have any specific changes that she wanted to make to the agreement.

“It seems to me that now’s the time to have these discussions and not withdraw from our participation in school security, that’s super high priority, but just to have this discussion and work on a new memorandum of understanding that includes our changed circumstances,” she said. 

One of those changed circumstances is that the school system now has its own internal security force that has grown to approximately 100 men and women in uniform. In contrast, KPD only has 14 SROs while KCSO deploys 32 of the specialized officers, she said.

17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr. was shot and killed during a confrontation with KPD officers in a restroom at Austin-East Magnet High School. The officers were trying to take Thompson into custody for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend when a gun he was holding inside his hoodie’s front pocket fired once. One of the officers then fired twice, killing Thompson and wounding the school’s SRO.

Although the officers were cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the TBI and Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen, there have been numerous protests demanding that the officers be charged and for KPD to be defunded. Until this week, it hadn’t been clear whether the protesters had much support beyond their own ranks.

Protesters at Wednesday’s work session of the School Board. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

On Tuesday, however, the Knox County Education Coalition demanded that the school system remove all City and County officers from the schools immediately.

“Police officers should not be readmitted to our schools until KCS adopts policies and procedures that put the welfare of every child ahead of any other priority, and until KCS is able to certify that every officer who enters a school is properly trained to work with children,” the coalition wrote in a letter to the School Board.

The group includes a number of politically powerful organizations such as the Knox County Education Association,  the NAACP and SPEAK (Students Parents and Educators Across Knox County). 

“The tragedy at Austin East is the result of many, many mistakes made by the multiple adults who were responsible for his welfare,” the coalition said. “The mistake that allowed other mistakes to lead to tragedy was the Board’s adoption of the MOA between KCS and police agencies. That agreement gives armed officers unfettered access our schools at any time, and allows them to do anything they choose. 

“The MOA has the effect of instructing the administration, school principals and every other school staff member to defer to KPD and KCSO officers at all times. With the agreement, the Board surrendered its control over which officers are assigned to our schools, how they are trained and any other aspect of their behavior—license that is not granted to any other individual or group.”

The group also described other instances where officers allegedly harmed students.

“In December, the (School) Board heard from the mother of a high school-aged child with disabilities who reported that, in violation of the child’s IEP, a police officer intervened while her child was having a crisis. The officer escalated the crisis, threatened, arrested and handcuffed the child. The child was traumatized, harm that may never be undone, all because an officer who was ignorant or improperly trained acted without guidance from experts in the school. So great isī the deference to police, that school personnel could give the mother no information about why this happened, only directed them to contact the police department. Following the family’s request that the officer be removed, he was assigned to another school.

School Board member Evetty Satterfield at Wednesday’s work session. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

“Another incident this year involved an officer at a middle school repeatedly putting his hands on a boy’s shoulders. Finally, he put his hand on the boy’s leg near the crotch. The child’s parent reached out to the schools, but was directed to the police department because the schools have no jurisdiction over the officers. Our understanding is that KPD gave the officer training and assigned him to another school. Because the officers do not work for KCS neither the staff nor the Board member the parent contacted had any control of KPD decisions.

“In all likelihood there are more incidents that have not come to light.”

Kincannon said the letter from the coalition had no effect on her decision.

“I don’t know anything about those allegations. My letter was primarily a response to changing circumstances,” she said. “Obviously we’ve had an officer involved shooting at Austin East High School and that certainly has been part of my thoughts on this decision.”

Also Wednesday, the School Board held a work session at the City-County Building. Board members Daniel Watson and Evetty Satterfield proposed that the school system review the MOA with extensive input from the community.

Although some board members did not seem enthusiastic about revisiting the MOA, after receiving Kincannon’s letter the consensus seemed to be that for better or worse the best course of action would be to establish a plan for revisiting the agreement.   

Watson reiterated that the intent of the resolution was not to eliminate law enforcement partnerships permanently with the schools, but rather to seek community involvement in forming a new MOA that would truly make all students feel safe as many feel threatened under the current arrangement.   

Evetty Satterfield suggested that the best approach might be to find different solutions for different communities.  Districts that feel safer with law enforcement present on campus could continue to operate in a way that makes them feel safer, whereas communities that feel threatened by a police presence in the schools could form arrangements where there would not be a law enforcement presence on the school campuses. 

Carrie Hopper, a former staff member in the special education department at Fulton High school, said during the public comment section that the schools shouldn’t enter a MOA with any law enforcement agency. 

“Most students who attend Fulton live in a community that has been historically underfunded and over-policed. Most of the students that I worked with come from economically disadvantaged households,” Hopper said. “The students in these communities look at cops in schools and see someone who is ready to unlawfully arrest them.  They see someone who carries a gun and a badge and easily could get away with murdering them at any point.”

Mike O’Malley, a teacher at Carter High School, spoke in favor of the MOA resolution. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

Mike OMalley, a teacher at Carter High School, spoke in favor of the MOA resolution. “I have seen school resource officers make fun of and belittle students. I have seen SROs watching a video on their phones of a fight between students and laughing about it,” he said. “On an even more serious note, I have seen students arrested for nonviolent behavior and have seen officers present during disciplinary actions that did not even result in an arrest. These are rare occurrences, but they loom large in the collective imagination of students.” 

In what has become a common occurrence since the death of Anthony Thompson Jr., protesters were also present Wednesday’s meeting. They cheered, chanted and applauded for board members and community members who made statements they agreed with and offered snappy comebacks and “boos” to commentary they disagreed with.  Many of the protesters also spoke during the public forum.  

Board Chair Susan Horn warned protesters several times that if they were not quiet and respectful, they would be escorted out.  Although warnings were given several times, no one was escorted out and no arrests were made.  

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

Jenna Stambaugh can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com 

Published on May 6, 2021