Knox County’s Junior Commissioners are better than the real thing

May 6, 2023 11:29 am
The 2023 Knox County Junior Commission. (Photo:

The 2023 Knox County Junior Commission. (Photo:

Spring semester in Tennessee’s schools ends soon, but one of the strongest lessons of this semester in East Tennessee has been taught by a group of students — specifically Knox County’s Junior Commissioners, eleven high school students, each paired with an actual Knox County Commission member.

The legislative year ended for four of the junior commissioners at a county commission meeting last week — and it ended with a bang, providing an unintended civics lesson on what can go wrong in local governance, and why in the future, more reasonable leadership from young people is desperately needed. Sadly, the event also may be a precursor of the bad craziness likely to occur when our state legislature takes up a special session on gun safety legislation.

The teen commissioners finished most of their work in March, but four of them crafted a resolution for the actual April Knox County Commission meeting. The resolution urged our state legislators to support Gov. Bill Lee in his executive decree on guns and protective orders. The resolution also recommended the legislature pass a stronger order of protection law.  

Commission Chair Courtney Durrett made some wording changes to excise emotionally charged sentences; she and commissioner Dasha Lundy, the only Democrats on the commission, listed themselves as sponsors.

Things got off to a rocky start during a work session when Commissioner John Schoonmaker challenged the resolution’s claim that gun violence is the leading cause of death for young people, asserting the leading cause is automobile accidents. Junior Commissioner Caroline Scoonover,  a junior at West High School, politely corrected him: firearms overtook auto accidents in 2020 and the gap has been growing.

As if to punctuate the junior commissioners’ denied resolution to support the governor’s ask to implement extreme orders of protection, the school week ended early on Friday at Knox County’s West High School. West’s  students went into a form of lockdown and were dismissed early after a gun discharged in a backpack in a classroom.

Commissioner Rhonda Lee at the same session baldly asserted, “The states that have the toughest gun laws have the worst violence.”  The online Knoxville news site Compass pointed out that statement is empirically untrue.  Multiple studies have shown that states with the highest rates of gun ownership and lax gun laws also have higher rates of gun homicide and suicide, and accidental gun deaths.

The situation got worse one week later at the April 24 Knox County Commission meeting as commissioners  took up the simple and elegant plea from four young people who had grown up with active shooter drills, studied government procedure, and presented a reasonable item for a vote. The public forum at the commission session featured statements from both gun safety advocates and outraged blather from gun extremists. Hysterical nonsense about gun grabbing broke out, along with all the usual excuses for inaction on gun violence.  Durrett and Lundy only persuaded Commissioner Larsen Jay to join them. The resolution lost 3 to 7.

Commissioner Terry Hill had prepared something of a watered-down substitute resolution, one imploring “the Governor of Tennessee and the Tennessee General Assembly to work together to address the issue of access to weapons by those in mental health crises who pose a threat to themselves and the public.” Most commissioners still were inclined to fear and to mollify the gun fetishists, voting 4-5 (with Schoonmaker abstaining) against Hill’s slight request that never even mentioned the word guns and even employed the usual mental health dodge often used against more serious action.

One might think such irrational legislating and sour-crushing ignorance would lead to cynicism from the four disappointed Junior Commissioners. Nope. One of them, Anand Patel, a junior at Farragut High School, set his sights on protests, marches and walkouts.  The other three — Scoonover; Dain Shelton, a senior at Hardin Valley Academy, and Gabriela Sánchez Benítez, a junior at Fulton High School — also said they’d continue their activism.

As if to punctuate the junior commissioners’ story, the school week ended early on Friday at Knox County’s West High School. West’s  students went into a form of lockdown and were dismissed early after a gun discharged in a backpack in a classroom. A teacher was grazed by either the bullet itself or a bullet fragment. A 14-year-old boy, reportedly fumbling around in the pack, caused the gun to discharge.  The boy has been charged with possession of a weapon on school grounds, reckless endangerment and reckless aggravated assault.

The terms of the current Knox County Junior Commissioners have come to an end, but a new batch will be in place in 2024.  If only these young people truly were in charge, the gun apologists on commission could be sent to the corner wearing dunce caps.

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Mark Harmon
Mark Harmon

Mark Harmon is a professor of journalism and media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.