By Steve Hunley

The Knox County Board of Education is currently under fire from Justice Knox who recently gathered in a Knoxville Church in what some referred to as a “discussion.”  If it was indeed a discussion, it was entirely one-sided.  Certainly opposing opinions were not welcome.  Justice Knox had invited numerous local elected and appointed officials to attend the meeting.  Frankly, the invite was less an invitation than a summons.  Justice Knox was successful in getting Knoxville Chief of Police David Rausch and Knox County Sheriff “JJ” Jones to promise training for officers in crisis intervention over a period of years, as well as to begin consulting experts in jail diversion programs.  Yet both the city and county governments had already approved a new safety center for the treatment of some folks who would otherwise have gone to jail.  Because of programs already in the works, neither Rausch nor Jones had to make any real concessions.

The crowd was less happy with the fact only one of the nine members of the Knox County Board of Education showed up to the meeting.  Second District representative Jennifer Owen attended the meeting, although she was quite clear in saying she would not address the group nor make any statement, especially anything that could be construed as speaking for her fellow board members.  Justice Knox had issued a demand that the board of education fund another training program in “restorative practices” to keep troubled youngsters in school.  The notion is not to resort to suspension for most offenses.  As with law enforcement, the board was already moving in that direction.

But according to Justice Knox, the board was not moving fast enough or, in their collective opinion, in the right direction.  In the past, some advocates have gone so far as to suggest that the school system refuse to press charges against students for criminal acts.  That simply isn’t possible.  For one thing, criminal law is approved and passed by the Tennessee General Assembly.  To do otherwise the members of the Knox County Board of Education would be violating their oaths of office, which swear to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the State of Tennessee, and could be subject to removal from office.  Nor can Chief David Rausch or Sheriff Jones refuse to arrest those students who have committed a criminal act; they too swear an oath.  Local officials, much less the school system, cannot simply ignore state law.

Superintendent Bob Thomas is fully committed to trying to eliminate any reasonable disparities for minority students and those with disabilities.  No member of the Knox County Board of Education has opposed any such policy; in fact, the board voted to appoint Thomas unanimously after he had made his position on the issue crystal clear during the recent superintendent search process. The board is poised to consider a contract to provide staff with training in restorative practices and cultural competency training.  Still, some members of Justice Knox are attacking the proposal as not good enough.  Expect an onslaught at Wednesday night’s school board meeting night from these folks.

The Justice Knox people were not content with calling out public officials to come down to the altar to state their positions and take a different kind of oath — one approving their own agenda.  Yet that was the whole point of the meeting.  Nor was there any talk about restoratives for those students who are behaving well and trying their best to learn.  All the attention is focused on the disruptive children and I seldom hear anyone mention the effect it has on the children focused on learning.  The only victims in Justice Knox’s opinions are, of course, the disruptive or badly behaved children.

One member of the crowd engaged board member Jennifer Owen in a loud argument after the meeting and Owen fired back, releasing a bluntly worded statement. Owen flatly called out the atmosphere of intimidation and bullying.  “I have never been treated so badly by any group of people, anywhere, and I just have no words,” Owen wrote in an email.

Despite meeting in a church and proudly proclaiming to anyone who will listen that the group is composed of numerous church congregations and pastors, the meeting format was described by Jennifer Owen as intimidating, if not outright manipulative.  Not surprisingly, Justice Knox claims they represent the thinking of the community.  The truth is, they represent only a small fraction of the community and seem to be engaged in what is happening all across the country — seeking as much media attention as they possibly can while shouting down anyone who doesn’t immediately agree with them.  Evidently, Justice Knox see themselves as the only righteous and people of good faith in the county.  The point of the meeting is what is referred to as a “Nehemiah Action Assembly,” which culminates in demanding local public officials immediately take a pledge to support the agenda of the assembly.

These folks were not engaging in discussion or dialogue; it was more like bad cops berating a confession out of a suspect.  No one group has a monopoly on good intentions or faith.  Seeking fairness should mean seeking equality and fairness for everyone, not extending special rights to a few.  It yet again underscores the very real assault in this country on free speech.  It seems to me Justice Knox needs a healthy dose of restorative practice in the Golden Rule in the worst way and the sooner the better.

It certainly doesn’t strike me as what Jesus would have done.