To some Knox County Schools officials, the weeks-long debate over the role that police officers should play in schools has consumed far too much in the way of time and resources.
To others, however, every minute spent on the topic is potentially a matter of life and death.
The true stakes of the debate have often been obscured by a topic that’s been at times confusing, infuriating and fraught with political risk for the players. It’s also been complicated by several issues that lurk in the background, informing the discussion even when they’re only rarely mentioned in a direct way.
For instance, the shooting of 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr. didn’t trigger the debate, but his death has nonetheless haunted the discussion. Thompson, who was Black, was killed during an armed confrontation with four KPD officers in a restroom at Austin-East Magnet High School on April 12.
It was only a matter of time before tempers broke, and break they did at Wednesday’s work session of the Board of Education.
Board members were deep into a discussion about possibly drawing up a new memorandum of agreement (MOA) between the school system and the county’s two law enforcement agencies, the Knoxville Police Department and the Knox County Sheriff’s Office. One of the key issues that has held up the School Board since April has been whether the public should be invited to provide input on the rules governing how student resource officers are supposed to interact with students and staff.
Caught in the middle of it all has been Superintendent Bob Thomas, and he made it crystal clear Wednesday that he didn’t appreciate the ever-shifting burden thrust on his shoulders.
“I’m just a little bit frustrated at this point,” Thomas said. “Not to the point where I won’t do what you tell me to do — obviously I’ll do that — but just give us some direction and let us move on ….We’ve spent just a huge amount of time on this, and I’m ready to move on ….I probably said a whole lot more than anybody wanted me to say, but you asked and that’s my feelings.”
Patti Bounds of the 7th District then intimated the issue was “a mountain out of a molehill,” prompting a furious response from Evetty Satterfield of the 1st District.
Satterfield, who is the School Board’s only Black member, said she didn’t care how much time is spent on the issue if it prevents another tragedy like what happened to Thompson.
“What I saw was an officer go into a school, manhunt a kid, and kill a kid in the bathroom,” Satterfield said, her voice breaking. “The amount of time needed to spend to make sure that never happens again, that’s how much time we need to spend on it. But that was what I saw — an officer of KPD came into a school, did not give any notice to the principal or whatever may be, and they killed a kid in our schools. So we should spend as much time as possible to make sure we never have that happen again.”
Bounds apologized to Satterfield and explained that she was trying to express her approval of a tentative agreement that Thomas had negotiated with Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon that meant KPD’s 14 SROs would return to the schools next semester.
“I just wanted you to understand my choice of words were probably wrong,” she told Satterfield. “I didn’t mean to minimize the incident.”
The new MOA agreed to by Kincannon and Thomas makes some changes in how SROs operate, such as greatly restricting the authority of SROs when incidents arise involving special needs students.
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.
The Board is expected to vote on whether to approve the new MOA with KPD at its July 14 meeting, but that might not bring the issue to a close. The Sheriff’s Office might not agree to any changes, raising the possibility that the school system could end up with two different MOAs.
It was also clear from Wednesday’s discussion that the possibility of the public being invited to take part in the process down the road wasn’t dead.
3rd District Board member Daniel Watson, who first proposed allowing the public to have input on the MOA only to see his proposal caught up in the emotional backlash surrounding Thompson’s death, stressed that his proposal wasn’t an attempt to “tell law enforcement what to do.”
He also addressed concerns that the public may not entirely trust the School Board by stressing the importance of consistency.
“When we say out of one side of our mouth that we want to invite the community to the table, and then at the other end we actually don’t act on that — we actually don’t do it — that’s a really good way to hurt the perception of the community,” he said.
J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at email@example.com
Published on July 1, 2021