Knox County Schools declines questions about officer assault of middle schooler

Knox Police officer slammed child’s face into table over unfounded claims of marijuana odor

By: - April 28, 2022 7:00 am
Northwest Middle School in Knox County (Photo: Northwest Middle School Facebook)

Northwest Middle School in Knox County (Photo: Northwest Middle School Facebook)

A Knoxville Police Department officer slammed the face of a handcuffed middle school student onto a table—causing a gash on the boy’s chin—in a search for marijuana that didn’t exist, court records and video obtained by the Tennessee Lookout show.

“I had no choice,” KPD School Resource Officer David Lee told the restrained, slightly-built Northwest Middle School student shortly after the slamming. “It didn’t have to go here.”

Lee, a 22-year veteran of the force, later claimed the boy kicked him with enough force to “scrape” the officer’s shin.

“He kicked the (expletive) out of my shin,” Lee told Northwest Middle School Principal Joann Bost. “That’s why I picked him up and put him on top of the desk.”

But Lee’s body camera footage of the April 2021 incident, obtained by the Tennessee Lookout last week, belies the claim.

Knoxville Police Officer David Lee. (Photo: Knox County Police)
Knoxville Police Officer David Lee. (Photo: Knox County Police)

The footage reveals the handcuffed boy was seated in a chair with Lee using the weight of his body to bend the boy’s upper body onto the table surface when Lee suddenly lifted the boy’s upper body and slammed the child’s face onto the same table.

When Lee later raised his pant leg to show Bost proof the boy kicked him, there was no injury, scrape or redness visible on his shin, the footage revealed. Lee did not alert KPD supervisors to his use of force against the child, the footage shows. Instead, Lee arrested the boy on a charge of resisting arrest. Records show the charge was later dismissed.

Bost did not notify the boy’s parents of his injury or arrest, records show. The boy’s parents are now suing Lee and the Knoxville Police Department in U.S. District Court for allegedly violating the eighth-grader’s civil rights and assaulting the child.

“Lee lifted the handcuffed, underweight (boy) off of his feet by his arms and slammed (his face) into the hard wooden table with the totality of (Lee’s) strength and weight, causing (the) child, to scream in agonizing pain,” attorney John “Stan” Young Jr., wrote in the lawsuit.

“As a result of the conduct of Lee, (the boy) has sustained and suffered – and continues to suffer – personal injuries and emotional distress, including insomnia, nightmares, post-traumatic stress, and other effects of psychological trauma associated with being brutally beaten by an authority figure,” Young continued.

KPD cited the pending lawsuit in declining comment on the incident.

‘I can smell it’

Lee first encountered the boy in a hallway outside a classroom. The boy was standing with an unidentified teacher and was wearing a backpack. The teacher, video showed, insisted she could smell the odor of marijuana coming from the backpack.

Lee, video revealed, grabbed the boy’s backpack and tugged it. The boy leaned forward in response.

“Let it off of you or I’m going to put you under arrest because I smell it,” Lee told the boy. “It doesn’t have to be anything … You have the odor coming from your bag.”

The boy responded, “My bag?”

“Yes,” Lee answered. “I can smell it right here, strong. That is reasonable suspicion.”

Joann Bost, principal of Northwest Middle School, did not notify parents of a middle school student of the injury that occurred when a Knoxville Police officer slammed his head into a table, nor did she notify them of the child’s subsequent arrest.

The boy leaned forward again as Lee held onto the backpack, which remained strapped onto the boy’s body. The unidentified teacher began repeatedly yelling at the boy to “let it go” as Lee forced the boy onto the ground.

“He just wants to check your bag,” the teacher yelled at the boy. “Quit fighting.”

The boy was facedown on the ground with Lee’s knee pressed into his body when a second unidentified teacher arrived.

“Stop fighting,” she yelled at the boy, who was not moving. “What’s your name? Stop fighting him.”

Lee turned the handcuffed boy onto his back as the boy complained, “You’re breaking my arm. That’s the only thing — my arm. You’re hurting my arm.”

Lee lifted the boy to his feet and escorted him into an office area. Lee did not attempt to remove the backpack, which was then wedged between the boy’s shoulder blades and handcuffed hands. As another unidentified teacher looked on, Lee pushed the boy into a seat next to a table.

“All of this over absolutely nothing,” Lee told the boy.

When the boy sought to pull away from Lee again, Lee used his body weight to press the student’s upper body onto the table. Seconds later, the video shows, Lee lifted the boy’s upper body and then slammed him face first onto the table.

“You just broke my chin,” the boy cried out.

Lee responded, “You’re not going to kick me.”

“I didn’t kick you,” the boy said.

Lee continued, “You’re fighting with me.”

“I’m not,” the boy, still pressed forward onto the table, replied.

Lee then removed his hands from the boy, who remained seated, and stepped back. Video revealed Lee was breathily heavily and sweating as he stood behind the boy. The unidentified teacher who witnessed the face slam said nothing.

A few minutes passed as Lee sought to calm his breathing. After blaming the boy for causing his use of force, Lee offered to “check” the handcuffs “to make sure it’s not too tight.” The boy declined but asked for his mother.

“I don’t know her,” Lee answered.

‘You need an ambulance, brother?’

A second KPD officer arrived minutes later and noted the boy was bleeding.

“You need an ambulance, brother?” the officer said. “You’ve got blood coming down your chin.”

Before the boy could reply, Lee said, “I was going to call one anyways, just his chin. (I) just can’t call one in here. I’m sweating a lot.”

The two officers bantered about Lee’s sweat as the handcuffed and bleeding boy stood silently, the backpack still untouched by either law enforcer. The unidentified teacher who witnessed the face slam reached toward the backpack and appeared to zip it just before the officers escorted the boy through a hallway and out the front door.

Lee, the video revealed, shifted a garbage bag of trash from the backseat of his cruiser to the front passenger seat while the handcuffed boy stood nearby.

“Yes, that’s trash,” Lee said before turning to the boy. “Are you going to let us take your backpack off or do I have to cut the straps?”

The handcuffed boy replied, “Cut it.”

Lee did. When Lee searched the backpack seconds later, he found chips, a sports drink and an unopened package of cigarillos but no marijuana, no lighter or marijuana paraphernalia.

Joann Bost, principal of Northwest Middle School, suggest to police the student might have marijuana in his phone case. (Photo: Knox County Schools)
Joann Bost, principal of Northwest Middle School, suggest to police the student might have marijuana in his phone case. (Photo: Knox County Schools)

“Can you call (an ambulance) cause of his chin?” Lee asked another officer.

Lee then sought to explain his actions in light of the lack of marijuana.

“He kept saying he needed to go to the bathroom, so I grabbed him,” Lee said. “I said, ‘We’re going to the office so just walk with me please.’ It smelled like raw (marijuana).”

Principal Bost, who had followed the officers outside, suggested the boy was hiding marijuana in his phone case. Lee looked at the case but concluded there were no signs of pot there either.

“That wouldn’t have been big enough to hold anything,” Lee said of the phone case.

Bost replied, “So that became huge for nothing?”

‘Once they get like that’

The unidentified teacher who had witnessed the face slam and followed the officers as they escorted the boy outside then offered Lee gossip about the boy’s brother and father and insisted the boy was irredeemable.

“Once they get like that, it’s just fighting, fighting for nothing,” the teacher said.

Lee responded, “It was – now (after the fruitless search for pot) – literally nothing. It’s over some cigars. I would have written him a ticket.”

“He was reeking (of pot),” the unidentified teacher insisted.

Lee said, “He didn’t want to be searched. The thing was, all we were going to do was search him. I didn’t want him to fight me all the way out. Now, I’ve got to take him in.”

Just before Lee left the school to transport the wounded boy to the Knox County Juvenile Detention Center, another unidentified teacher hugged the officer.

“I just want to say thank you,” she said.

The boy’s injuries required medical care, including staples to close the wound, but it’s not clear from the video when or where he received that treatment.

The Tennessee Lookout provided Knox County Schools a copy of the body camera footage and asked a series of questions about the conduct and comments of the principal and teachers captured on that video. Schools spokeswoman Carly Harrington did not answer the queries.

“Without further investigation, we would not have information responsive to your request,” Harrington wrote.

Asked if the school system would now investigate after reviewing the video footage, she responded, “It is my understanding that this took place last year.”

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Jamie Satterfield
Jamie Satterfield

Jamie Satterfield is an investigative journalist with more than 33 years of experience, specializing in legal affairs, policing, public corruption, environmental crime and civil rights violations. Her journalism has been honored as some of the best in the nation, earning recognition from the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Awards, the Green Eyeshade Awards, the Tennessee Press Association, the Tennessee Managing Editors Association, the First Amendment Center and many other industry organizations. Her work has led to criminal charges against wrongdoers, changes in state law and citations in legal opinions and journals. She was married to the love of her life for 28 years and is now a widow and proud mother of two successful children of good character and work ethic.