KPD officers to stay in schools

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After weeks of intense (and often confusing) debate over the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the county school system and law enforcement agencies that governs school security, an agreement has apparently been reached that will bring Knoxville Police Department officers back into the fold. 

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and Knox County Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas came up with the agreement “after several weeks of discussion,” according to a press release sent to local news outlets by City spokesperson Kristin Farley.

Farley said the School Board will likely consider approving the MOA at their work session this Wednesday and their July 14 meeting.

The new MOA will be in effect “until a new agreement can be researched and developed” by the Board, which means the debate over the issue may be far from over.

3rd District Board member Daniel Watson, who first proposed allowing the public to have input on the MOA, said Sunday that he believes the agreement reached by Kincannon and Thomas is basically a stopgap measure. 

“I think the proposed MOA with KPD is a good step in the right direction, but it comes up short in addressing our overall strategy with school safety and security, namely because it does not include KCS’s other partner, KCSO,” Watson said. 

“I see this as a provisional MOA that keeps KPD at the table until a more robust community engagement process and review is completed. I am grateful that Mayor Kincannon and Chief Thomas are willing to work with KCS on behalf of all of our students,” he said.

Watson triggered much of the controversy when he and 1st District Board member Evetty Satterfield proposed that the school system review the MOA with extensive input from the community. 

Regardless of the merits of their proposal, the timing couldn’t have been worse.

What followed was a political free-for-all of claims and counter-claims about the role and value of the School Resource Officer (SRO) programs run by the Knoxville Police Department and Knox County Sheriff’s Office, all of it taking place against the background of public outrage over the killing of a 17-year-old boy by police at Austin-East Magnet High School.

Anthony Thomson Jr., a junior at Austin-East, was involved in an April 12 domestic dispute with his estranged girlfriend on the school campus. When four KPD officers tried to arrest him in a school restroom for domestic assault, Thompson struggled and a pistol in his hoodie went off. One of the officers then fired two shots, killing Thompson and wounding the school’s SRO.

Several community groups demanded that police SROs be pulled from the schools, citing Thompson’s death and other instances of alleged brutality by SROs. 

Such a move wouldn’t leave students undefended, critics pointed out. In fact, while KPD and KCSO contribute about 40 SROs, the school system itself fields a force of security officers with an authorized strength of 105.

Then, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon announced she was unilaterally withdrawing the City from the MOA and KPD from the school system as of June 12. She said that she’d like the officers to return but not until a new MOA was drawn up.

By the time the shouting reached its peak, many School Board members were convinced that Watson’s and Satterfield’s proposal was some kind of attack on law enforcement. Paradoxically, most of those same Board members agreed that a new MOA with public input was a good idea. In the end, the Board rejected the proposal 6-3 but later discussed ways in which the public could be included.

The new MOA agreed to by Kincannon and Thomas makes some significant changes in how SROs operate, such as greatly restricting the authority of SROs when incidents arise involving special needs students. 

It’s unknown exactly why the changes were made to the old MOA, as the agreement was worked out behind closed doors. 

It’s not clear if any of those changes might have changed the outcome of the encounter between Thompson and the KPD officers had they been in place at the time. The incident is still the subject of internal investigations by both KPD and the school system. 

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

Published on June 28, 2021