Posted on May 6, 2021

One High School, Five Students Fatally Shot

Rick Rojas, New York Times, April 23, 2021

The killings came in rapid succession.

On a cold night in late January, a high school football player was found unconscious and bleeding from a single gunshot wound. Two weeks later, a 16-year-old student was killed by what the authorities said may have been a stray bullet. Four days after that, a co-captain of the dance team was shot dead. In early March, a 15-year-old who last attended classes in the fall died from gunshot wounds.

And last week, Anthony J. Thompson Jr., 17, was shot and killed by a police officer in a brief scuffle inside a cramped bathroom on the same campus, becoming the fifth student at Austin-East Magnet High School this year to die of gun violence.

The shooting death of Mr. Thompson, who the authorities said fired a pistol and struck a trash can in the bathroom moments before he was killed, echoed a series of violent confrontations between African-Americans and law enforcement officers. {snip}


In several of the shootings, teenagers as young as 14 have been arrested.

The authorities said the confrontation with Mr. Thompson escalated because he was armed. In shaky videos recorded by police officers’ body cameras, the officers are seen reaching for their guns, with one opening fire. A classmate, pinned to the tile floor by another officer, sees the seeping blood and cries out: “Help him! Please, help him!” An autopsy showed Mr. Thompson was pierced in the heart and lungs by a single bullet.

The shooting, which prosecutors in Knoxville, Tenn., released video of this week after sustained community pressure, unfolded in the midst of the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, a former police officer convicted of killing George Floyd.

But in Knoxville, much of the community’s outrage over the death was rooted in broader fears that a climate of violence has woven itself into the lives of its young people.

Knoxville, a city of lush hills situated along the Tennessee River with about 188,000 residents, recorded 37 homicides last year, one of the deadliest years in the city’s modern history. The City Council recently approved a $1 million proposal to fund programs that intend to stem gun violence.

“I think that this city is reeling,” said Charme P. Allen, the Knox County district attorney general. {snip}


Austin-East, an arts magnet school with about 640 students, a majority of whom are Black, has been a reflection of the East Knoxville community’s pride — but also of its struggles. The streets surrounding the school are dotted with overgrown lots and abandoned storefronts, evidence, residents say, of neglect and the entrenched poverty pervading the neighborhood.


Ms. Allen, the Knoxville prosecutor, had initially resisted calls by activists, local elected officials and even the chief of the Knoxville Police Department to release body-camera footage of Mr. Thompson’s shooting.

But in a news conference that stretched over two hours on Wednesday, Ms. Allen used 911 calls, text messages and footage from school security and body cameras to recount both the shooting and what had precipitated it. She would not pursue criminal charges against the officer, she said, citing what she described as his reasonable fear of lethal danger to himself and the other officers.

She said the police were first called after fights between Mr. Thompson and his girlfriend. The girl’s mother, Regina Perkins, told the police that Mr. Thompson had pushed her daughter and pulled her hair.

In an interview with The Knoxville News Sentinel, Ms. Perkins said that she regretted calling the police. “I am so sorry, and I never meant for anything to happen to him,” she said. “He was a good kid, he had dreams and goals, but he had some struggles.”

Mr. Thompson was captured by school security cameras walking around the campus and talking on his cellphone before he went into the bathroom. After the officers arrived, a school resource officer led them there. Ms. Allen slowed down the body camera footage and pointed out a gun in the pocket of Mr. Thompson’s hoodie. She later noted a hole in the fabric that she said came from firing his gun.


But lawyers representing Mr. Thompson’s family argued that his death could have been avoided.

“When a suspect is a person of color, there is no attempt to de-escalate the situation,” Ben Crump, the prominent civil rights lawyer who has been hired by many families of people killed by the police, including the Floyd family, said in a statement after he was retained by Mr. Thompson’s family. “Police shoot first and ask questions later, time after time, because Black lives are afforded less value.”


Ms. Taylor, Justin Taylor’s older sister, called her brother an “entrepreneur” who regularly woke up early to mow lawns for money. “He was very ambitious,” she said. “It’s very important to me that that lives on, that people know that about him, that people know he was a good student. Austin-East is not full of bad kids.”