A student opened fire on officers responding to a report of a possible gunman at a Tennessee high school Monday, and police shot back and killed him, authorities said. The shooting wounded an officer and comes as the community reels from off-campus gun violence that has left three other students dead this year.
Police found the student in a bathroom at Austin-East Magnet High School in Knoxville, a city about 180 miles (290 kilometers) east of Nashville, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David B. Rausch said at a news conference. They ordered the student to come out, but he wouldn't comply, and that's when he reportedly opened fire, Rausch said. Police fired back.
The student died at the school, and the officer was taken into surgery after being shot at least once in the upper leg, authorities said. The officer was expected to recover, and no one else was hurt. It wasn't yet clear why the student brought a gun to school or why he fired at officers.
“It’s a sad day for Knoxville, and it’s tough for Austin-East,” Rausch said.
Asked about the overwhelming police response to a call that came in just before afternoon dismissal, Knoxville Police Chief Eve Thomas said, “We have a student, a school incident. It’s our worst fear, an active shooter in a school.”
The shooting comes as more classrooms are reopening to students after months of remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic, which cut down the number of mass killings in the U.S. The nation has seen series of mass shootings in recent weeks, including eight people killed at three Atlanta-area massage businesses on March 16 and 10 people killed at Colorado supermarket on March 22.
Knox County Schools restarted in-person learning in August, but Austin-East Magnet High School went back to virtual instruction briefly in February after the spate of shooting deaths of students. The school will be closed again Tuesday and Wednesday.
Speaking outside a hospital, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon told news station WATE-TV that she spoke with the wounded officer and he was conscious and in good spirits.
Kincannon, a former Knox County Schools board president, spoke at a February press conference about the gun violence that took the lives of three Austin-East students less than three weeks apart this year. Two of the victims were 15, and the other was 16.
“I know that school is a safe place,” Kincannon said at that time, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. “It’s a place where people are learning. ... The issues with violence are happening in the community, and it’s affecting kids when they’re outside of the school. That’s why we are focusing our efforts to protect the innocent, protect the school, protect the children and students and staff.”
The newspaper reported that the school was adding three school resource officers and stepping up patrols around dismissal time.
State Rep. Sam McKenzie, who represents the district and went to the school, said in a statement: “I am at a loss to describe my sadness as yet another horrific act of gun violence has happened in my community," urging people to “reclaim the sanctity of our beloved neighborhood."
“This is the fourth unnecessary shooting involving the Austin East community this year and we must make sure we take every step and make every effort to prevent these tragedies from continuing to occur,” McKenzie's statement said.
Gov. Bill Lee mentioned the shooting at a Monday news conference but said he had little information.
“I just wanted to make reference to that and ask, for those who are watching, online or otherwise, to pray for that situation and for the families and the victims that might be affected by that in our state," he said.
Last week, the Republican governor signed legislation that will make Tennessee the latest state to allow most adults 21 and older to carry handguns — openly or concealed — without first clearing a background check and training. Lee backed the legislation over objections from law enforcement groups, who argued that the state’s existing permit system provided an important safeguard for knowing who should or shouldn’t be carrying a gun.
When asked earlier this year whether recent mass shootings in Georgia, Colorado and others gave him any concern about timing, Lee said the increased penalties mean that “we in fact will be strengthening laws that would help prevent gun crimes in the future.”
This story was first published on April 12, 2021. It was updated on April 13, 2021 to correct the date that Knox County returned to in-person schooling. In-person classes began last August.