A week after voting to not adopt a plan to bring the public into discussions on school security issues, the Knox County Board of Education met to …. plan on how to bring the public into discussions on school security issues.
As confusing as the meeting’s background might have been, Board members did seem to come to broad agreement on several points concerning how a new Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between Knox County Schools and local law enforcement agencies should be created.
“I appreciate everyone coming together in good faith,” said 3rd District Board member Daniel Watson, who triggered much of the controversy when he and 1st District Board member Evetty Satterfield proposed early this month 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 chaotic 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 referendum 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. Apparently, however, the measure was harder to kill than expected as Wednesday’s meeting to hammer out a public MOA was soon announced.
Watson made it clear Wednesday that he was pleased to see his fellow Board members coming to together in a nonpartisan spirit to address the issue. “We don’t feed into the false narrative that this is about whether you like law enforcement,” he said.
Patti Bounds of the 7th District made it clear that she was unhappy with Kincannon’s decision to pull KPD from the schools, calling it “hasty, ill-advised and rash.”
“I don’t want us to go through this situation again with KPD,” she said.
Superintendent Bob Thomas said that he’d spoken to Kincannon before the meeting and had been assured that she wanted to work with the Board and would put KPD officers in the schools again if a new MOA wasn’t finished in time for the 2021-22 school year to start.
Otherwise, Wednesday’s discussion was pretty much drama-free.
Although nothing was finalized, it was clear that Board members liked the idea of focus groups and of soliciting community opinions online. They also talking about holding four public gatherings, one each for the north, south, east and west parts of the county.
In the end, the Board instructed Thomas to look for an outside facilitator to help develop a plan.
J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published on May 20, 2021