A majority of Knox County Board of Education members voted Wednesday to approve a temporary contract with the Knoxville Police Department to provide student resource officers (SROs) to the schools.
They refused, however, to make a firm commitment to allowing the public to have a say-so in any permanent agreement involving both KPD and the other agency that provides SROs, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office.
As had often been the case in the ongoing debate over drafting a new Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the schools and the two police agencies, the School Board seemed to split roughly into two voting blocs.
One bloc had been pushing for the public (parents, students, teachers and other stakeholders) to have some input in a new MOA. Although the group had made suggestions as to how the public’s input could be sought, they had been careful to leave that question open for the time being.
This group included 3rd District Board member Daniel Watson and Evetty Satterfield of the 1st District, who first proposed that the public be involved.
Members of the other bloc, such as Patti Bounds of the 7th District and Mike McMillan of the 8th District, had said repeatedly in previous weeks that they either supported public involvement or at least didn’t oppose it.
In practice, they had nonetheless managed to derail public participation at nearly every step of the process, often implying that to do otherwise would be an insult to law enforcement. At other points, it seemed as though some didn’t want to oppose the whims of County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, who has claimed that there’a a conspiracy afoot to remove police from the schools altogether but hasn’t provided any proof to support the accusation.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the Board expected to vote on a new agreement tentatively drawn up between Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas to ensure that KPD officers would stay in the schools until a new MOA can be drawn up between the schools and both police agencies.
Watson made an amendment that instructed Superintendent Thomas to start working with both police agencies in order to come up with a single MOA in 12 months that would leverage public input.
McMillan was skeptical that KCSO, KPD and the schools will be able to come to an agreement. He also made it clear that he didn’t trust Kincannon after her earlier decision to pull KPD from the schools.
“She’s the wild card,” McMillan said.
Board Chairperson Susan Horn said she thinks each member should have a Town Hall-type meeting in their district and then seemed to back away from it.
“I’m certainly not opposed to hearing from the community….I’m uncomfortable with the community input part of this. I really want to get the new chief of security in and get his buy-in.”
Watson, who seemed momentarily at a loss for words after Horn’s comments, said, “I think if you roll back the tape of what you just said, you just said, ‘I want to hear from the community, I recommended a way to do that…. But at the same time I’m not comfortable with this because it suggests we get community input, and we need to hear from our chief first.’”
He continued: “And you also said this is too vague. When I’ve tried to be specific in the past, you’ve said it was too specific. So I’m asking you directly, what the …”
Horn responded by saying she didn’t want the Board committed to “a big process” when it came to getting public input. Watson, in turn, pointed out that his amendment didn’t specify any process at all, much less a large one, and it could in fact be used to support her Town Hall idea.
“All this is saying is we’re open to getting community input,” he said.
Jennifer Owen of the 2nd District reviewed the amendment several times and pointed out the document didn’t include anything that her fellow School Board members were criticizing.
“There’s nothing here that says we’ll do it one way or another,” she said. “I can’t understand where that’s coming from, it’s not here in these words.”
McMillan then called the question and Watson’s amendment failed in a 4-4 vote (Virginia Babb wasn’t at Wednesday’s meeting).
When it came time to vote on the new MOA with KPD, the measure initially passed with Watson and Satterfield passing and McMillan casting the only “no” vote.
McMillan then brought the meeting to a brief halt by asking, “What were we just voting on?”
After determining that he’d wrongly thought he was voting on the amendment, he changed his vote to “yes.”
Horn said after the vote that she didn’t want to see the superintendent “micromanaged” and nothing precluded Thomas from continuing talks between all the parties.
The issue first came to the fore in April when Watson and 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.
The new MOA agreed to by Kincannon and Thomas includes significant changes in how SROs operate, such as greatly restricting the authority of SROs when incidents arise involving students with special needs.
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.
Thomson’s case was rarely mentioned during the School Board discussions, but prior to Wednesday’s vote several students from Austin-East Magnet High School made it clear that his death remains at the forefront of their minds.
“Why do these kids not feel protected enough by KPD that they take matters into their own hands?” asked one teen. “Why are those kids more scared of the police than each other? Why did you all think it was okay to let those police officers into the school without even informing Anthony’s mother first? … It wasn’t right, you all know it wasn’t right. But we will scream ‘Justice for Ant’ until something is done, and I don’t care if that means screaming it until my last breath.”
CORRECTION: The first edition of this article mistakenly stated that Patti Bounds has missed Wednesday’s meeting. This was incorrect. The absent council member was Virginia Babb. We apologize for any confusion this error may have caused.
J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published on July 15, 2021