KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — On April 12, 2021, Austin-East Magnet High School student Anthony Thompson Jr. began his day “much like any other day,” according to federal court documents filed Monday by his mother.
Nearly a year to the day her 17-year-old son, Anthony Thompson Jr. was shot and killed by a Knoxville police officer inside an Austin-East bathroom, his mother, Chanada Robinson and her son’s best friend Gralyn Strong, filed a federal lawsuit against Knox County Schools, Knox County Schools Board of Education, the City of Knoxville, the Knoxville Police Department, and four KPD officers.
The lawsuit stems from the shooting on Monday, April 12, 2021 when Thompson was killed inside an Austin-East bathroom during a confrontation with KPD officers. Knox County District Attorney Charme Allen cleared the officers of criminal charges and released body camera video during a press conference held a week after the shooting.
The four KPD officers, Lt. Stanley Cash, Officer Brian Baldwin, Officer Jonathan Clabough, and Officer Adam Willson, are now being sued by Robinson and Strong, accused of depriving Anthony Thompson Jr of his civil rights guaranteed by the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments; as well as Robinson’s own right, for the deprivation of her civil right to the custody and society of her son.
The lawsuit alleges that their rights were violated “due to the acts and omissions of the City of Knoxville, acting through the Knoxville Police Department, and the Knox County School Board, operating Knox County Schools.”
Timeline: What the lawsuit alleges happened in the bathroom
Camera footage shows Thompson had entered the Austin-East school bathroom at 2:16 p.m. and did not reemerge. Gralyn Strong, who the lawsuit says was Thompson’s best friend since the fifth grade, was also in the bathroom with Thompson, listening to music while Thompson was on his phone texting, “remaining available whenever Anthony wanted to talk.”
The lawsuit alleges the teen had been in distress due to an incident with his girlfriend at the school earlier in the day. Officers were looking for Thompson.
When the officers entered the school building around 2:53 p.m., they were let in by Officer Willson “through a back door,” the lawsuit states. “The officers did not engage the principal, as was required by the MOA, and instead proceeded to the school security office, and then to the bathroom.”
Body camera footage shows the officers conversed about the teen’s whereabouts and how they believed the vice-principal knew they were there. The four officers searched the school and headed toward the bathroom in which Thompson was located.
A few moments later, at 3:12 p.m., the altercation occurs and Thompson and Officer Willson are both injured by gunshots, later revealed to have been fired from Officer Clabough’s service weapon. District Attorney Charme Allen had said last year when presenting evidence and bodycam footage of the incident that a shot was first fired from Thompson’s person and the firearm dropped to the bathroom floor amid the scuffle.
The lawsuit states that “the video simply does not show whether Anthony, Officer Clabough, or SSO Willson caused the gun to fire. All three hands were in the one pocket with the gun,” per Officer Clabough’s bodycam. Four seconds after the first shot from the gun in Anthony’s pocket was fired, Officer Clabough fired his weapon, twice, shooting Thompson. Officer Willson was also shot by Officer Clabough.
“After hearing the gunfire, Gralyn Strong came out of the bathroom stall next to the one previously occupied by Anthony,” the lawsuit states, “Gralyn came out of the bathroom stall with his hands up and did not pose any danger to Defendants.”
Strong complied with officers’ commands and sat on the ground then laid on his stomach with his hands out. He shouted at officers to help Thompson. Strong was placed in handcuffs.
“At no time was Gralyn suspected of committing, nor did he commit, any crimes,” the lawsuit states. “Gralyn did not possess any illegal substances or items and was never a suspect in Defendants’ investigation… Instead of administering CPR to Anthony, Officer Clabough searched Gralyn’s person.”
The lawsuit also states no officer or any school nurse appears on the video or in the audio recording to administer any first aid or medical assistance to Anthony.
District Attorney Allen’s timeline of events states a school nurse had arrived on the scene at the bathroom around four minutes after the shooting and started to work on resuscitating Thompson. Police later said he was pronounced dead at the scene.
After the bathroom shooting
Robinson claims in the lawsuit that at around 3:15 p.m., she received a call from her daughter who told her something had happened at Austin-East. Robinson tried calling her son’s mobile phone, but there was no answer. Robinson called Strong’s mother, who told Robinson she was watching the police walk her son out of the school in handcuffs.
“Defendant refused to let Ms. Strong see Gralyn, refused to let Gralyn leave, and refused to call his mother or allow Gralyn to call his mother. The police held Gralyn and interrogated him for four hours in handcuffs before releasing him to his mother. No criminal charges were brought against Gralyn.”
Meanwhile, the lawsuit states Robinson immediately called her sister and they went to the school, where they questioned an officer who told them no one was hurt. Both women were told to go to the back of the school. They asked where the children were and were told no one was left present in the school; Robinson asked about her son and “was told she could not receive any information because (her) last name is not the same as Anthony’s last name.”
After 30 minutes, Robinson was asked by an officer to speak with police at the downtown station. She asked why but agreed and offered to meet him there. Instead, the officer insisted that he drive, then placed Robinson in the back of the squad car.
“When (Robinson) arrived at the police station, she was isolated from her family and interrogated by a TBI agent in a small room about Anthony’s friends, where he had spent the night, whether he had a curfew, whether he always abided by the curfew, whether he was involved with a gang, whether he had ever had criminal trouble in the past, and other similarly provocative questions,” the lawsuit states. “Eventually, (Robinson) stopped answering questions and demanded to know where her son was.”
“At that point, the TBI agent excused himself and a police chaplain entered the room to tell her that her son was dead.”
Robinson was then escorted to a different room and Renee Kelly from Knox County Schools brought her a business card. The lawsuit also states neither police nor school officials told her where her son’s body was.
The family was able to locate his remains a few days later, on April 14, after making phone calls to every area hospital. Robinson alleges in the lawsuit that she repeatedly requested to meet with various officials, but all have refused, and she believes the city “just wants Anthony to disappear.”
A year later, Robinson says in the lawsuit that she does not have her son’s belongings, including his mobile phone, and she has paid around $16,000 for her son’s burial, which required her to take out a loan, and Thompson does not have a grave marker. All of Thompson’s siblings have obtained mental health services, but Robinson has not because she says she cannot afford it and “needs to deal with this first.”
As for Strong, the lawsuit states “Gralyn has also suffered and continues to suffer. Prior to the incident, Gralyn was a healthy young man with no medical problems. Gralyn witnessed his best friend since the fifth grade, Anthony, die.” Strong was unable to return to school and enrolled in online classes. He’s also been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental health issues stemming from the officer-involved shooting and death of Thompson.
The lawsuit filed Monday goes on to allege violations, acts of omission, of the various KCS policies and procedures the plaintiffs believe were violated or not followed leading up to, during and after the death of Anthony Thompson Jr.
School board policy
Knox County Schools Board of Education publishes its policies and procedures on the school district website. Topics covering procedural due process, interrogation and searches, random searches for dangerous weapons, drugs and drug paraphernalia, weapons and dangerous instruments, and more are approved each year by the board.
The lawsuit claims that if the July 2019 Memorandum of Agreement between the school district, school board, the city, KPD and Knox County Sheriff’s Office had been followed, it “likely would have saved Anthony’s life.”
The school district, board, the city, and the city police department entered a new, updated agreed-upon MOA in the summer of 2021 some months after the Austin-East officer-involved shooting.
According to KCS Board of Education policy, J-200, states:
- “Students may be questioned by teachers or principals about any matter pertaining to the operation of a school and/or enforcement of its rules. Questioning must be conducted discreetly and under circumstances which will avoid unnecessary embarrassment to the student being questioned. Any student answering falsely, evasively or refusing to answer a proper question may be subject to disciplinary action, including suspension.
- “If a student is a suspect or accused of any offense committed in a school during school hours or on school property at any time, the principal may interrogate the student, without the presence of parent(s) and without giving the student constitutional warnings.
- “If a student is a suspect or is accused of a crime not involving the operation of a school or if interrogation of a particular student is police instigated, a parent shall be notified and constitutional warnings shall be given to the student before interrogation begins.”
Damages sought and what Robinson/Strong say happened
The lawsuit seeks relief for damages as appropriate, court costs, discretionary costs, reasonable attorney fees, fully-funded access to mental health services for Austin-East students and families, damages “as will fully compensate them for all injuries caused by the acts and omissions of the Defendants, including but not limited to paying Ms. Robinson for the cost of burying Anthony;” as well as other policy and procedure changes and additional training for law enforcement officers in schools.
The lawsuit narrative shows how the day’s events unfolded through a mother’s eyes, who claims she wasn’t initially given answers to what had happened to her son; and through those of the slain teen’s best friend, who witnessed the shooting and Thompson’s death.
Robinson claims in the lawsuit that Anthony was in fear of his life while at school due arguments with his girlfriend that had “spilled over to their respective families,” threats from the girlfriend’s mother’s boyfriend and the shootings of four Austin-East students near campus within the previous six weeks. The lawsuit also states that on or about April 5, 2021 – a week before the officer-involved shooting in the bathroom – Kelvon Foster purchased a firearm at a pawnshop and gave it to Thompson.
“Anthony’s mother never knew her son had a gun until after he was dead,” the lawsuit states.
An Austin-East vice-principal sent Robinson an email letting her know about a fight between Thompson and his girlfriend that had gotten “heated,” and that Thompson did not want to speak with the vice-principal when approached. Since the girlfriend was checked out of school, Robinson “believed she could deal with any issues after school.” and for the next three hours, Thompson did not go to class and instead roamed the halls.
“If the school had communicated with Mother (Robinson), she could have intervened by calling Anthony to instruct him to go to class or to pick him up,” the lawsuit states. “This has been a pattern of behavior by school officials and KPD experienced by the Mother and other Austin-East families. Lack of communication between the school, KPD and parents, lack of transparency, and lack of basic human respect for the families of Austin-East are why the Austin-East community does not trust the police.”
The lawsuit narrative goes on to highlight text messages sent to Thompson by the girlfriend’s mother, letting him know they had called the police. School cameras also captured Thompson running through the school hallways, leaving out of a door, then returning, twice, before sitting on a stairwell.
“Absent any adult intervention, and concerned about his friend clearly experiencing distress, Gralyn followed Anthony to the stairwell to support and comfort him,” the lawsuit states. “If the SSO or the SRO had patrolled the campus as their job description suggests they should, they would likely have encountered Anthony and Gralyn in the hall, stairwell, or parking lot, and could have told them to go to class or else asked what was wrong.”
The lawsuit speaks to the 2019 MOA and how procedures were supposed to have been followed; stating that if Robinson had been called, she could have intervened.
“Any of these alternatives would have prevented the altercation in the bathroom that resulted in Anthony’s death.”
The girlfriend’s mother had called 911 and told dispatch Thompson was known to carry a pistol on his person. The girlfriend’s mother also claimed that Thompson had a weapon. In an interview with Officer Clabough, the girlfriend’s mother also suggested that “these kids hide guns in the bushes” outside the school. Officer Clabough told the girlfriend, “he’s going to jail,” and then contacts the then-SRO at Austin-East, Officer Willson.
The lawsuit states prior to the exchange in the bathroom, no one called Robinson to suggest that her son was subject to arrest by the police; or that he was suspected of having a gun.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right that no person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which has five sections, guarantees that no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Statements from officials
On Monday after the lawsuit was filed, the City of Knoxville, the Knoxville Police Department and Knox County schools released the following statements:
“The City of Knoxville does not comment on pending litigation. However, I can say that April 12, 2021 was a tragic day for the Thompson family, our officers, the school system, and our entire city. Anthony Thompson died before reaching his full potential and my thoughts remain with his family today.”
– Mayor Indya Kincannon
“The Knoxville Police Department does not comment on pending litigation. Any other inquiries should be directed to the City of Knoxville Law Department.”
-Knoxville Police Department spokesperson Scott Erland
“We are unable to comment on pending litigation.”
-Knox County Schools spokesperson Carly Harrington