“A Collective Effort”

Andre Canty of Cities United.

First there needs to be healing, then the heavy lifting can begin.

That was the message for the Knox County Schools Board of Education at their Wednesday work session as they discussed the recent shooting deaths of three Austin-East Magnet High School students.

“We need to get to healing before we get to what we want to do,” said Andre Canty of Cities United during a presentation on violence prevention. “But we’re getting to that.”

Cities United, a national initiative that has worked with more than 130 cities seeking to quell inner city violence, has surged to the forefront of local discussions on the issue because Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon has made it a lynchpin of her response to the slayings.

Canty, a senior associate with the group, spoke to the Board at the request of Evetty Satterfield, who represents the First District including Austin-East.

School Board member Daniel Watson asked him if the school system was taking steps that could be construed as “knee jerk reactions.”

“Is there anything that we should not be doing?” Watson asked, which led Canty to emphasize the importance of healing.

Some parents have been dismayed by some of the rule changes at Austin-East, such as a requirement for clear or mesh backpacks. Some parents say the measures feel punitive and questioned the logic of adding security to a campus that wasn’t the site of any of the precipitating incidents.

The Austin-East community is still very much in mourning over last month’s loss of 16-year-old Stanley Freeman Jr., who was killed while leaving school, and 15-year-old Janaria Muhammad, who was shot outside her home. Justin Taylor, 15, was allegedly shot by a friend in January.

Authorities are still looking for the killers of Freeman and Muhammad. The FBI has offered a $5,000 reward in an effort to convince witnesses to come forward.

The incidents involving Austin-East students were only the most recent tragedies in the midst of an unprecedented surge of deadly violence that has touched almost every corner of the city.

There were 37 homicides in the city in 2020, more than the previous high of 35 in 1998. Since Jan. 1 of this year, there have been 13 slayings, all of them involving firearms. By way of comparison, at this time last year there had been only three homicides. 

Mayor Kincannon has secured a $1 million emergency allocation to address the crisis and wants Cities United to play a central role in the response. A contract with Cities United is soon expected to be presented to City Council for approval.

Since 2011, the Louisville, Ky.-based nonprofit group Cities United has been bringing together mayors from across the United States to collaborate on ways to reduce gun violence involving young Black men and boys. Their goal is to cut the number of killings in this demographic by 2025.

While the organization’s stated goal is focused on Black men, the group’s mission is to help people of all races and ages, Canty said. He said the demographic group that’s harmed the most by gun violence is that of Black males between the ages of 14 and 24.

He said that Cities United  group looks at gun violence in simple terms: “We treat it like a disease.”

The cure for this disease has three steps, he said. 

The first is “violence interruption,” which simply means somehow getting to the individual who may commit a violent act. The second step is to “dismantle inequity” and the third is to make programs sustainable.

If they’re not sustainable, programs can be defunded or eliminated when the current group of players leave office.

Much of the violence targeted by Cities United grows out of the dangerous environments that both victims and perpetrators normally grow up in, so it’s vital to show them there’s another path with a better future at the end of it.

“No one grew up saying, ‘I want to kill someone,’” Canty said.

Knoxville’s experience, while heartbreaking, is the norm in the United States right now, he said. Homicide rates across the country have risen since the COVID-19 pandemic began and, in theory, violence should begin returning to normal levels once the coronavirus is controlled.

The pandemic doesn’t appear to be the only possible cause of the ongoing violent crime wave. The surge in homicides correlates with the unrest that began last spring due to protests in several cities over allegations of police brutality.

In the end, there needs to be both immediate and long-term solutions. Knoxville is already meeting its immediate needs by exploring violence interruption efforts, but the long-term solution is the daunting and complex task of addressing systemic racism.

Satterfield explained that she wanted Canty to speak so the Board would have a lens that  might help them see ways to control violence before it happens.

“This does affect our schools even though it’s a public safety issue,” she said.

Canty said the school system is just one of the players that needs to be at the table. As of now, the City may be leading the charge but eventually the school board, the county, the judiciary and even the state will need to take part.

“It’s a collective effort,” he said.

Knox County School Superintendent Bob Thomas recommended to the board that there be an incentive package for certified and classified employees. He recommended a one-time payment of $1,000 for certified employees and $500 for classified employees.

He said the employees deserved the extra compensation because of the added hardships they faced over the course of the school year due to COVID-19. 

The Board will vote on the proposed bonuses at its regular meeting March 10.

He said it would mean the school system will have to pay $4.8 million from its own general fund, but he said sales tax collections have been strong and a $28 million surplus is expected by the end of the year.

The payment is on top of $2.5 million the Tennessee General Assembly approved to be paid to certified workers. That payment means $443 of the bonus each worker receives will come from state dollars.

Cliff Hightower can be reached at cliffhightower@hardknoxwire.com. 

Published on March 4, 2021.

See more:

Austin East torn by violence from response

City looking inside to fix outside

A screenshot from Canty’s presentation to the School Board. Like most meetings during the ongoing pandemic, Wednesday’s work session was broadcast on the internet.