May 3, 2017. Knoxville News Sentinel.

Civic engagement in Knoxville on April 24 wasn’t boring or tedious. It was exciting and unusual – as if one went to a chess tournament and chess boxing broke out. Many area church congregations and non-profit groups came together under the banner of Justice Knox.

The group had done research and strategic planning – and it showed to the capacity crowd filling the pews of Central United Methodist Church. Justice Knox, motivated by moral imperatives of justice and compassion, narrowed its focus to two specific changes.

Initially, Justice Knox wants to reduce the use of suspension as punishment in our schools, and substitute a technique called Restorative Practice. Secondly, the group wants to assure that all our police officers, sheriff’s deputies and jailers are trained in Crisis Intervention Training regarding mental illness within two to three years.

Each issue moved through the same process. One speaker outlined the problem in numerical terms.  A second gave a heart-wrenching example of a person caught up in our flawed system. A third explained the benefits of the proposed solution.

Then officials were invited forward, but in a controlled manner. Each was asked specific yes/no questions printed in the program. Justice Knox questioners kept hold of the microphone. The program cautioned against booing, but declared, “During the negotiations, remember that we are united in asking public officials to make commitments. We will applaud when we hear commitments and remain silent when public officials deflect, do not answer directly or refuse to commit.”

These tactics to check several politician tools (distraction, diversion, and delay) led from the chess part to the boxing part.

The mental health portion of the program went well. Both Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch and Knox County Sheriff J.J. Jones agreed to CIT training. Regarding a requested study, both seemed favorable to the idea after a year’s data from the new safety center is available.

The schools portion was more controversial. School board members Patti Bounds and Jennifer Owen were called forward, but neither did. Owen says she was there, but objected to any implication she could speak for the board (though the questions were about personal actions). Since then Owen, who has been a good public servant, has faced unwarranted criticism that really should be directed to the entire board.

Elder Christopher Battle of Tabernacle Baptist Church lambasted the school board absence. Rev. John Mark Wiggers, St. James Episcopal Church, slammed a local leaders’ letter that asked, “Will you help us raise more funds…?”  Wiggers replied, “Yes, we will faithfully continue to pay our taxes.”  Rabbi Alon Ferency of Heska Amuna Synagogue closed the event by speaking about “praying with your feet” which I suspect many in the audience will do starting with school board meetings.

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