Unlike its major metropolitan counterparts, Knox County Schools puts an armed officer in every school. The district now has almost twice as many armed officers in its schools than Metro Nashville Public Schools, and more officers than the Nashville district and Hamilton County Schools combined.
Knox County has an armed officer position for about every 400 students, while Metro Nashville Public Schools has an armed officer for every 1,400 students.
Police presence in Shelby County Schools in Memphis is closer to Knox County, but Knox remains the only district of the four major metropolitan areas to have a dedicated police officer in every elementary school.
The role of Knox County's 145 armed school officer positions has come under heightened scrutiny in recent weeks, after police body camera footage showed Knoxville Police Department officers shot and killed Anthony Thompson, Jr., in his high school restroom without using de-escalation tactics.
In an open letter last Tuesday, six local organizations, including the Knox County Education Association and the Knoxville NAACP, called on the Knox County Board of Education to remove all police and sheriff’s officers from schools until the district creates a new agreement with the Knoxville Police Department and Knox County Sheriff’s Office.
“Police officers should not be readmitted to our schools until KCS adopts policies and procedures that put the welfare of every child ahead of any other priority,” the letter reads. “The killing of Anthony Thompson Jr. is not the only incident where harm came to a child in Knox County Schools because of the behavior of a School Resource Officer.”
The letter cites two other instances this year of parents reporting serious misconduct by school resource officers, including against a child with disabilities.
The day after the letter was issued, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon announced she would pull the Knoxville Police Department out of its agreement with the district immediately after graduation (though she said the organizations’ letter did not influence her decision).
Instead, the mayor said she made the sudden move to push the school board to re-evaluate its relationship with local police, in light of a spike in district-employed security officers in recent years.
"It seemed like a very opportune time to have these discussions and sometimes setting a deadline encourages those discussions," Kincannon said.
Kincannon's decision pulls 14 Knoxville Police Department officers out of schools starting June 12, though the Knox County Sheriff's Office still has 32 armed officers in schools. Sheriff Tom Spangler said in a statement, “I am NOT pulling any of our Deputies out of any Knox County Schools that we are currently in.” The district also has 105 armed school security officer positions, 93 of which are currently filled.
Tonight, the Knox County School Board will vote on a resolution that could kick start the process of collecting community feedback about policing in schools. A proposal, brought by board members Evetty Satterfield and Daniel Watson, would schedule a public meeting for school board members to outline a community engagement process for reviewing the district's memorandum of understanding with Knox County Sheriff’s Office and Knoxville Police Department.
A previous version of the resolution proposed allocating $50,000 to a school safety and security task force to gather community input. That provision has since been removed, and the board would decide later down the road how it will gather public feedback.
The resolution attributes Knox County’s growing police presence in schools over the past two decades, in large part, to two out-of-state school shootings. In response to the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, the district placed armed officers in all high schools for the first time. Following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, the Knox County school board expanded its district security team and placed an armed officer in every elementary school, according to the resolution.
In contrast, Metro Nashville Public Schools does not put armed officers in any of its elementary schools or charter schools. In Shelby County Schools, one officer can oversee three to four elementary schools, according to a statement from district officials. But in Knox County, there are enough officer positions for more than one officer at most schools.
School board member Daniel Watson said his goal for the resolution is to submit the question of school security to the community for discussion. He said the current memorandum was created with minimal public input in 2019.
“This is an issue that people care about. Me saying that isn't about what people believe should happen or not happen, but people care about this issue,” Watson said. “That's even more of a reason to gather the community to weigh in.”
The school board will vote on the resolution to re-evaluate its relationship with the Knoxville Police Department and the Knox County Sheriff's Office this evening at 5:00 p.m.