So far, so far, it’s just threats threatening our schools, students and staffs. Everyone’s fingers are crossed it stays just threats. Especially the fingers of Det. Lt. Angie Parris and her Knox County Sheriff’s Office Juvenile Crimes Unit.
Students making threats against schools is a growing local and national issue. Some schools have been targeted when no threat was made. Think Covenant School in Nashville, March 27, 2023, 7 dead. Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, 28 dead. Uvalde, Texas, May 24, 2022, 22 died.
Six days ago – this past Wednesday – her unit arrested a student for making “mass destruction” threats (bombs, shootings) against Farragut Middle School.
During the week of April 3-7, threats were made to five schools and five students were arrested. The schools were West Valley Middle, Karns Middle (two threats), Farragut Intermediate, Powell High and two threats at Hardin Valley Academy.
During the week of Feb. 8-15, 2023, threats were made at Carter High, Farragut High, Gibbs High (with one arrest), Halls Middle (two 8th graders arrested) and Powell High (a sophomore arrested).
“Since Jan. 1, 2023, we have responded to threats in every high school and middle school in Knox County (outside the city),” she said.
Inside the city, Knoxville Police Department spokesperson said the KPD has arrested only four students this year for making threats and does not have a number of how many threats have been made.
Going back to 2022, Parris said from August 2022 through December 2022, they dealt with 49 threats. The vast majority of the kids making the threats are boys, ages 12 to 17. She says a handful of threats have been made by girls.
These threats, however, eat up time for the KCSO – the officers who work at the schools and the Juvenile Crimes Unit staff with their response time and the follow-up investigations.
Parris, who for 16 years has been in the Juvenile Crimes Unit and its leader as of last year, says threats to schools in the county have increased by 80% since Covid hit in 2021. The FBI says approximately 6,000 school threats were reported nationwide in 2022, marking a 60% increase from the previous year. And don’t make the mistake of saying “It can’t happen here.” It’s happening everywhere.
“Every threat made at every school we must take seriously and we investigate as fast as we can,” Parris says. “You have to treat every threat as being real. It’s getting worse every year. Back in 2007, we dealt with truancy issues, theft … small things. Today the juvenile crimes are more violent and serious in the schools – burglaries, guns, assaults, allegations of rape and sexual assaults. Not all of them are real, but we have to investigate every one.”
Not long ago, she said a young male student walked down a hall in his school telling everyone he had a bomb in his backpack. An investigation followed. No bomb was found. But, what if … ?
“Many of the kids do not understand that this is not a joking matter. You can’t joke about this in school. Who knows if you’re joking or not? If you do joke about it, law enforcement will be knocking on your door or pulling you out of class,” she explained.
Asked about a threat at a private school, she said if they are notified about the threat at any school in the county, they will respond.
Parris is a Campbell County native. A family tragedy led her into law enforcement. “A close uncle of mine, Jerry Letner, was murdered during my senior year at Campbell County High School in 1987. Two juvenile boys, 18 or 19, robbed him and instead of ending it there they beat him to death. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do.”
After high school she earned a degree in business administration from LMU and first got a job with the Girl Scouts in Knoxville as its business services manager. She stayed there seven years. The law enforcement bug never left her and she took a pay cut to begin seven years of working for KCSO in corrections. In 2007, she graduated from the Police Academy, survived field training on patrol and then was assigned to the unit she works in and loves – juvenile crimes.
Her son today is studying at Roane State Community College for a law enforcement career. “He has fallen in love with it and he hopes to work in the area of cyber forensics,” she says.
Parris – and it does not take long to figure this out – loves every aspect of her job. “I enjoy helping all of the kids, even the children we don’t charge. We help them get counseling and we also get to work with their parents and in a lot of these cases with their grandparents too.”
The lieutenant and her three investigators are always busy. She says each one of them carries a caseload of 60 cases at any given time these days. She’d like to see it slow down, but isn’t optimistic about that possibility, considering the trends. Their caseload includes the threats plus the other juvenile crime cases. Also, two detective positions are open.
How do students make their threats? She said most are verbal threats done at schools, some are written, on social media (using Snapchat and Discord mostly), bomb threats and shooting threats written on bathroom walls, and they’ve had students stand up during a class and make a threat.
Since last Tuesday they have worked five threats – at Farragut Middle, West Valley Middle, Karns High and Carter High. And since January 1, threats were made to six elementary schools. Overall, her team has investigated 62 threats since January 1 and made 19 arrests.
They also are working a number of suicide cases. Already in 2023, they have responded to 45 threats of suicide. “Suicide is not a crime of course but we always work on these. Of those 45, 20 of the young people, boys and girls, tried to take their lives,” she said. “We follow up with all of them and help them get counseling.”
Her unit, she proudly says, “is the best in the sheriff’s office, a great group of people. They care about the kids, each and every child in our community. They have passion for it. They rotate being on call at night and on weekends and work an extra eight days a month when they are supposed to be off duty.”
Parris is considering creating a program on making threats and its seriousness and legal implications and consequences to present beginning next fall to students during school club assemblies. “We’ve got to get the message out how serious this is and can be and how law enforcement reacts to it,” she said.
Parris added that Juvenile Court Judge Tim Irwin’s approach is rehabilitation instead of punishment. “It is amazing what he accomplishes with these kids. He is amazing with them and they pay attention to everything he says,” she added.
Tom King has been the editor of newspapers in Texas and California and also worked in Tennessee and Georgia.