One High School, Five Students Fatally Shot

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — 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. But it also stirred an all-too familiar anguish in a community that residents said has been gripped in an epidemic of gun violence besieging its young people.

“These kids are losing their lives left and right for no reason,” said Kiara Taylor, 21, whose brother, Justin Taylor, the football player, was killed in what the authorities described as an accidental shooting. “It makes it harder to get out of the house every day knowing another child has lost their life.”

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. “I think that the fact we’ve had five deaths of high school students means that clearly somewhere something is wrong. It’s unacceptable.”

At a recent community talent show, girls performed dances they learned from TikTok in T-shirts that memorialized one classmate. In protests, they sat on the hoods of their friends’ cars, chanting “Black youth matter” and mouthing the lyrics to songs by the rapper Lil Baby, which blared from the speakers.

“They’re angry,” Jacqueline Muhammad, whose daughter Janaria Muhammad, 15, who was the co-captain of the school’s dance team, said of her daughter’s friends and classmates. “They’re hurt. They’re tired. And I hope and pray that no one else has to get hurt.”

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.

The school draws its students mostly from those East Knoxville neighborhoods, and residents describe it as an anchor for the community. Students and parents like to boast about the dance and arts programs.

But they also complain of outdated textbooks and a shortage of counselors. And in a community that has seen an uptick in crime in recent years, Ms. Muhammad said students were acquainted with deadly violence well before the recent fatal shootings.

Knox County Schools declined to comment on the shootings, but officials said that counseling and other services were available.

Mr. Thompson’s death — the only one that involved a confrontation with the police — has tapped into the broader tensions that have been inflamed in recent weeks as the nation watched the trial of Mr. Chauvin. It also came amid an uproar in Chicago over the release of body-camera footage showing the shooting of Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old who tossed a handgun behind a fence before he was killed by a police officer.

It happened, too, days before the shooting deaths of other young people across the country, including Ma’Khia Bryant, 16, who was wielding a knife when she was killed by a police officer in Columbus, Ohio, and the fatal attack on a 7-year-old girl who was shot inside a car in a drive-through lane at a McDonald’s restaurant in Chicago.

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.

Knoxville’s mayor, Indya Kincannon, said in a statement on Wednesday that she was “relieved” the footage had been shared. “This information, while imperative for transparency, is not easy to watch,” she said.

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.”

Over the last week, Mr. Thompson’s name has been added to a list displayed on posters and chanted in demonstrations, a collection of young people killed by gunfire. Dozens gathered recently in a park down the street from Austin-East, and families shared stories of the relatives they had lost.

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.”

The group took a meandering path through East Knoxville, carrying banners and wearing shirts commemorating those who had been killed. They passed homes with signs declaring school pride. “Pray for A.E. to be strong,” one said.

Sheenan Lundy, 36, burst out into school songs, with a chorus of voices joining her. I’m so glad I go to A.E. I’m so, so glad I go to A.E.

“Austin-East gives hope,” she said later. “It’s family oriented. It’s home. It’s love. It’s dedication. It’s pride. I could go on and on. It’s a special place. It’s a safe haven — no matter what they say about it.”

It had been that for her, a graduate in the Class of 2003. Ms. Lundy could see it becoming the same for her daughter, Shaniya Cherry, a 15-year-old ninth grader in the dance program who was recently elected Miss Freshman.

“I still love my school,” she said, adding that she and her friends have relied on one another in recent months as they have navigated their pain.

Her younger sister, Aniya Mitchell, 9, piped up. She said she’d heard her older sister asking their mother about the police officers at school. Aniya started to cry as she described her fear of encountering someone with a gun. “You don’t want that to happen to you,” she said.

Shaniya reached down and wiped the tears from her sister’s face.

Richard Fausset contributed reporting.

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