The possibility that parents, students or other members of the community could be allowed to take part in a discussion on how police are deployed in Knox County’s 88 schools seemed to dwindle Wednesday at the Board of Education’s regular monthly meeting.
A proposal to hire an independent facilitator to help gather input from the community failed to gather enough votes, leaving some Board members unsure of whether the original issue was politically alive or dead.
Others pointed out that the Board had appeared to be behind hiring a facilitator until County Mayor Glenn Jacobs sent a letter last week expressing his disapproval of the notion. Jacobs seemed to misunderstand the issues at play, falsely accusing the Board of looking at hiring an “outside consulting firm” and implying the Board was considering the removal of “armed law enforcement officers” from schools.
The letter seemed to knock the sails out of several Board members, especially those who were afraid of being perceived as anti-police, although there’d been zero criticism of the Knoxville Police Department or Knox County Sheriff’s Office from Board members.
Virginia Babb, who represents the 4th District, said after Wednesday’s meeting that she wasn’t surprised by the proposal’s failure.
“I felt like after the discussion last week, it wouldn’t pass,” said Babb, who cast one of the three votes in favor of hiring a facilitator. “I did feel like we needed to vote on it because I felt like, without a vote, (Superintendent Bob) Thomas was in a tough position after Mayor Jacob’s letter. I honestly don’t know where we go from here. I think there are some school board members that would like public input but there is no clear way to move forward.”
1st District Board member Evetty Satterfield, who also voted for a facilitator, echoed Babb’s assessment.
“The tune of using an outside facilitator didn’t change until Mayor Jacobs released his letter. I’m not saying that’s why the motion failed but I was also unable to get a clear understanding from a few board members as to why they presented hesitation,” she said.
The cost of not hiring a facilitator should be reckoned in terms of what the School board has given up, she said.
“Missed opportunity to build community relations and trust. Missed opportunity to value community voices. Missed opportunity to be a better school system by using feedback,” Satterfield said.
Not everyone seemed to believe that the loss of outside facilitation necessarily meant the demise of the push to allow public input on a new Memorandum of Agreement, or MOA, between the school system and the county’s two law enforcement agencies.
“If individual board members choose to hold town halls with their constituents, they may do so at any time. Like other issues Board members navigate, the Board member would then represent their constituents by taking their concerns to the Superintendent and in this case, the Chief of Security,” said Board chairperson Susan Horn.
3rd District Board member Daniel Watson, who missed Wednesday’s meeting because he was out of town, predicted the initiative to redraw the MOA with public input would continue.
“At this point there is no clear process to gather input, but I’m confident that one will come together. It is too important not to,” he said in an email sent late Wednesday.
“It is important to note there will be a facilitator for the process,” he said. “You can’t gather input from the community without someone or some group facilitating the process. The board voted to not use an external facilitator. I’m confident the process will continue, but with KCS staff likely managing the process.
“In my opinion, that starts us off on the wrong foot with the community, solely because KCS is the lead agency in the MOA. You cannot facilitate a community engagement process in a neutral way if you are the lead agency, no matter how skilled you are. We will need to work harder than ever to ensure that the community is at the table in a meaningful way.”
The controversy began early last month when Watson and Satterfield proposed that the school system review the MOA with extensive input from the community. Their proposal seemed harmless enough, but the timing couldn’t have been worse.
What followed was a chaotic free-for-all of claims and counter-claims about the role and value of the School Resource Officer (SRO) programs run by KPD and the 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 Thompson 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.
The situation didn’t reach a flash point, however, until Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon abruptly 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 seemed convinced that Watson’s and Satterfield’s proposal was some kind of referendum on law enforcement.
Paradoxically, most of those same Board members also seemed to agree that a new MOA with public input was a good idea. At a May 19 meeting it appeared that an understanding had been tentatively reached, but that consensus crumbled soon after the letter from Jacobs was received.
One key question on the mind of Board members on Wednesday was the status of KPD and its 14 SROs.
Superintendent Thomas told the Board that he met recently with Knoxville Mayor Kincannon to discuss whether KPD will take part in the process, whatever it might turn out to be.
8th District Board member Mike McMillan pressed Thomas to present Kincannon with an ultimatum if they meet again next week as scheduled.
“My intent is to not let this lie dormant over the next few weeks,” Thomas said. “School’s going to be starting before we know it and we need to have a plan in place, reassurance to parents and communities that the officers will be in the schools.”
“I don’t think we can let it lie a few weeks while the mayor makes up her mind,” McMillan said. “My guess is she knows now whether she wants to participate and to what level….If she does not say or put something in writing by Tuesday or Wednesday to the effect that the KPD will participate with us, then we should move on. Do you agree with that?”
“Yes, sir,” Thomas replied.
“I would appreciate it if you tell her ‘This is it,’” McMillan said.
J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published on June 10, 2021