School security measure shot down

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School board member Daniel Watson (orange shirt) argues for his security proposal. Photo: Jenna Stambaugh

Editor’s note: This story was edited to include Mayor Kincannon’s Friday statement, which came in after our normal deadline.

In what may have been a blatant attempt to curry favor with law enforcement at the cost of children’s safety, a two-thirds majority of the Knox County Board of Education effectively kicked Knoxville Police Department officers out of the school system for the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, it may have been an example of an elected body refusing to be held hostage to the whims of political correctness. Instead of caving in to liberal demands, a majority of Board members took a stand that proved their loyalty to law enforcement was second-to-none, even if it wasn’t entirely clear whether that loyalty was being questioned in the first place. 

Or perhaps the 6-3 vote was a refusal to acknowledge that Black Americans have historically suffered trauma due to racism and a denial that “Black lives matter.”

All those interpretations (and more) of Wednesday night’s vote over the Memorandum of Agreement between Knox County Schools and local law enforcement agencies were arguably valid. 

In fact, it’ll most likely be some time before it’s clear exactly what was or wasn’t accomplished at the meeting (if anything), and what the fallout will be.  Perhaps the only thing that all observers would agree on was that the national debates on racism and police continue to be played out locally as Knox County wrestles with the aftermath of a teenager being shot to death by police in a school restroom.  

Anthony Thompson Jr.,17, was shot and killed April 12 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 assaulting his girlfriend when a gun he was holding inside his hoodie’s front pocket fired once, striking a nearby trash can. One of the officers then fired twice, killing Thompson and wounding the school’s SRO.

At issue Wednesday was a proposal by Board members Daniel Watson and Evetty Satterfield that the school system review the MOA with extensive input from the community. Watson stressed when he first introduced the proposal at last week’s work session that he’d been working on it for months before Thompson’s death and he had no agenda to push other than to give regular citizens a voice in the decision-making process.

After the proposal was introduced last week, however, the debate took on a life of its own.

First, the Knox County Education Coalition demanded that the school system remove all City and County officers from the schools immediately. 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 coalition alleged that SROs had harmed students and wielded too much authority on school campuses, effectively stripping teachers and administrators of their authority to enforce system policy.

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and Police Chief Eve Thomas then announced that KPD would be unilaterally withdrawing from the MOA when the current semester ends in June. They said they wanted the agency’s SROs to remain in the schools, but first there would need to be a new MOA in place.

Although those two developments had nothing to do with Watson’s original proposal, it soon became clear that a segment of the community viewed it as an ideological attack on police. Watson even changed the original version going into Wednesday’s Board meeting to make it more palatable to his peers, but it soon became clear the changes didn’t go far enough for some.

Patti Bounds, who represents the 7th District, drew gasps and boos from the crowd when she objected to two passages dealing with racism. 

According to the first section, the Board “recognizes historical compounded trauma that students of color have experienced in the United States and the trauma which can be experienced by special education students, immigrant students and students with disabilities when engaging with law enforcement.”

Patti Bounds

The second passage said the Board “is deeply committed to affirming the lives of all our students as evidenced by the resolution affirming black lives in Knox County Schools by acknowledging Juneteenth; the work of the Disparities in Educational Outcomes Taskforce; the creation of the Office of Schools Culture; the addition of the ‘Windows and Mirrors’ curriculum; the strategic efforts to increase the number of staff of color; the implementation of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, Trauma Informed interventions, Restorative Practices; and Cultural Responsiveness Training.” 

Bounds said she couldn’t bring herself to vote for the proposal because “I don’t feel we can affirm Black lives” without also affirming other ethnic groups. She also explained that she didn’t understand why such language was included in the measure. 

“I don’t think we need to list all of these things in the resolution,” Bounds said. “I just don’t think this is the place for it.”

Watson countered that all the resolution did was list things the Board had already done in other contexts. “This Board has already affirmed Black lives,” he said, adding that he didn’t believe “anyone can deny trauma has occurred.”

Several members made it clear they didn’t object to the heart of the proposal, which was that the MOA should be reviewed and perhaps changed with public input. Regardless, the measure had simply accumulated too much baggage for them to stomach.

Board member Kristi Kristy of the 9th District said that — fairly or not — public opinion had effectively turned Watson’s resolution into a referendum on whether or not the Board supported police. 

“The public has interpreted this as an indictment of law enforcement,” Kristy said.

Watson might not have wanted the measure to be seen as a criticism of law enforcement but the resolution’s co-sponsor, Evetty Satterfield of the 1st District, had a strong opinion about the role that SRO’s have played in county schools.

Satterfield echoed the criticisms made last week by the Knox County Education Coalition, claiming the Board needed to make it clear that the schools aren’t supposed to be run by police departments. She also said that Anthony Thompson’s death was the result of school officials being unable to dictate how the situation would be handled. 

“Knox County schools did not run Austin-East High School on that day,” she said. “We need to set the tone that we run Knox County schools.” 

Evetty Satterfield

Watson lamented that the popularity of police was the central point of discussion rather than the safety of children.

“Who loves police more? That’s not the discussion that we’re having,” he said. “I don’t think we’re putting the students at the center of the conversation.”

He repeatedly stressed that he was merely calling for a “transparent, community involved process.”

“Everyone involved here wants our kids to be safe and secure,” he said. “That means very different things to different people…. It’s absolutely going to be hard and messy if it’s done right. But our kids are worth it.”

In the end, however, only Watson, Satterfield and 2nd District representative Jennifer Owen voted for the proposal.

The failure of the measure drew catcalls and heckling from a crowd of up to 30 protesters who gathered in the City-County Building’s main assembly room for the meeting.

“You guys don’t serve our children, you’re goddamn racists!” screamed one woman.

The failure of the measure left many questions unanswered. 

For one, would the Board continue exploring a new MOA and, if so, will the public be invited?

Schools spokesperson Carly Harrington said a May 19 hearing on the issue that was part of the failed resolution may go forward anyway but wasn’t clear on details.

“It appears that the May 19 (meeting) will still likely be held. We will public notice it once it has been confirmed,” she said in an email to Hard Knox Wire that was sent late Wednesday.

Another question is the future of the Knoxville Police Department’s presence in the school system. 

Approximately 145 armed security guards patrol the school system’s elementary, middle and high school campuses. The vast majority of those officers are security guards employed directly by the school system. The Sheriff’s Office  provides 32 SROs and KPD has 14, although the status of KPD’s officers is unclear due to the agency’s withdrawal from the MOA.

City officials said last the week the SROs will only return if a new memorandum is put in place by the time school starts back in August.

Mayor Kincannon issued the following statement Friday morning: “I am still planning on having discussions with key partners to discuss the best path forward.  The hope is that those conversations can lead to a solution that works best for all parties involved.  I am committed to keeping students safe and also sensitive to the fact that revaluating practices is often an important step, as well.” 

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

Published on May 13, 2021