While planning for emergence from the pandemic, the school board confronts the aftermath of another student’s violent death.
by jesse fox mayshark • April 15, 2021
evetty satterfield, left, speaks at Wednesday's school board meeting as Jennifer Owen Looks on. (Screenshot/KCSTV)
In a sometimes emotional meeting Wednesday night that touched on face masks, politics, and the shooting death of an Austin-East High School student, the Knox County school board wrestled with two distinct and difficult challenges: the lingering COVID-19 pandemic and the surge of violence that has claimed five adolescent lives since January.
Activists call for investments in school safety, counselors and economic development.On the former, the board split 5-4 in adopting Superintendent Bob Thomas’ recommendation to continue to follow state Department of Health guidelines as the district prepares for the 2021-22 school year. It also voted to allow its mask mandate policy to expire in August, but that does not necessarily mean masks won’t be required when students return to school in the fall.
On the issue of violence and the death Monday of Anthony Thompson Jr., an 11th-grader who was shot in a confrontation with two police officers in an Austin-East bathroom, school officials offered sympathy and promises to improve school safety, though few concrete ideas.
“We simply must find a community solution to the issue of gun violence,” Thomas said in remarks at the start of Wednesday’s meeting. “We stand ready to work with all stakeholders to take action and to bring change.”
Austin-East, the school attended by all five of the students who have been shot and killed in separate incidents this year, will remain closed through next Monday. On Tuesday, Thomas said, students will move to virtual learning. They will be able to return to the building next Wednesday, April 21.
In considering Thomas’ recommendations for health protocols next year, the board was divided between those wanting to stick with guidelines from public health officials and those wanting assurances that the year will not feature requirements like mask-wearing and physical distancing.
“Yes, there’s still COVID, but I guess my question is, do we really think we’re ever going to get rid of COVID?” asked board Chair Susan Horn. “We may, I hope we do. But I think it’s entirely possible that it could be a virus that sticks around.”
She voted against Thomas’ plan, which relies on guidance from the state Department of Health. Joining her in opposition were board members Betsy Henderson, Patti Bounds and Mike McMillan.
McMillan made a point of calling out Knox County Health Department director Dr. Martha Buchanan, with whom he sparred at last week’s work session over masks and the credibility of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (McMillan is a CDC skeptic.) Although the Health Department does not have direct jurisdiction over the school system, the district has relied on its guidance this year.
“I don’t have much faith in what Dr. Buchanan tells us, because I think she enjoys holding us hostage,” McMillan said. “And who knows how long that could go on?”
On the other side were arguments that the school system’s health protocols this year have allowed schools to remain open to in-person learning while keeping cases relatively low — the school system on Tuesday reported 44 active COVID-19 cases among students, out of total enrollment of nearly 60,000. There were three staff members with active cases.
Board member Jennifer Owen suggested that some board members were letting the politics of the pandemic — in which opposition to health guidelines has become something of a conservative cause — guide their feelings, rather than science.
“We have entire online networks that are solely devoted to creating and distributing information to discredit and disparage experts in a wide variety of fields,” Owen said. “Unfortunately, information from those very purposeful campaigns has been repeatedly presented to this board as if it is real and reliable information. We cannot use that kind of chaff to make health decisions.”
Owen voted for Thomas’ plan, along with board Vice Chair Virginia Babb and board members Evetty Satterfield, Daniel Watson and Kristi Kristy.
Thomas said he hopes schools are able to open this fall with no health restrictions at all, including masks and distancing. But he said it would depend on guidance from health officials.
“I’m hoping all of this changes,” Thomas said. “I am not a fan of face masks. I'm just trying to make sure that we keep everybody as safe as possible and following the science of it.”
The board did approve a proposal by Henderson to allow its face mask policy to expire at the beginning of August. But that just removes it as a matter of board policy and leaves it up to the superintendent’s direction. Thomas’ plan currently calls for masks in the fall, unless guidance from the state changes.
“I just do want clarity (for) people that because we are sunsetting this policy, it does not mean that there might not be face masks,” Babb said.
Calls for Action
Satterfield, an Austin-East graduate who now represents the school as part of the 1st District, began Wednesday’s meeting with an acknowledgment that she had ruffled some feathers at the end of last week’s work session.
Following two hours of public forum at the April 7 meeting dominated by vehement anti-mask activists, some of whom compared masks to slavery and segregation, Satterfield said it was a form of “white privilege” to treat face mask wearing as if it were a civil rights issue.
Those remarks sparked some controversy online, with the Knox County Republican Party taking to Facebook to accuse Satterfield, the board’s only African-American member, of showing “disdain” for the parents who spoke at the meeting and “playing the ‘white privilege card.’” The post also promised to field an opponent to run against Satterfield next year, although school board races are nonpartisan and the 1st District is the county’s most Democratic stronghold.
Wednesday night, Satterfield offered some explanation for her remarks. “My tolerance threshold had been reached,” she said. “And those were the words I chose to use to express how I as a Black woman felt when the number of individuals compared wearing a mask to oppression.”
She added, “Colleagues, I ask for your understanding and grace to move beyond what was said and refocus our energy on pressing issues throughout KCS.”
She found support from Watson, who apologized to Satterfield for not standing up for her when the public forum comments had been made. He said that he has come over the years to recognize his own privilege as a white American male.
“This privilege has often afforded me the ability to not hear certain things, to not react, to choose not to enter difficult conversations, to chalk up the pain of another to something he or she did instead of the systems that have historically oppressed far too many Black and brown people in our country,” Watson said.
Those themes of racial justice carried over to remarks during public forum at the end of Wednesday’s meeting, when some activists who had attended a protest earlier in the evening outside the City County Building called for board action to reduce violence in the majority Black neighborhoods around Austin-East.
Caitlyn Southall, a student at Pellissippi State Community College, presented a list of demands that ranged from metal detectors at the entrances to Austin-East to a tripling of the school’s six-member counseling staff and more investment in infrastructure and economic development in the community.
“The East Knoxville community would also like to be included in the conversation on how to make this happen,” Southall said. “We're not asking you to do it on your own, we’re just asking to be a part of the conversation. We're asking to be given the opportunity to make this happen.”
At the end of the meeting, fighting back tears, Satterfield said her heart was with her community and called for full transparency in the investigation into Anthony Thompson Jr.’s death.
“I’m not protecting a system, I’m not protecting a position, I’m not protecting a person,” she said. “I am standing with my community.”