Students return to in-person learning at Austin-East after deaths of classmates

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Austin-East students wrapped up their first day of in-person class on Monday. It comes after the school switched to virtual learning last week, to give students and staff space to grieve.

Janaria Muhammad, 15, and Stanley Freeman Jr., 16, were killed within a week of each other.

Another teen, Justin Taylor, was shot to death the month before.

Austin-East’s principal Nathan Langlois said this day is different, but he also said he’s happy to have high schoolers and teachers back in the building. And they were welcomed in with a massive show of support.

Crowds of community members gathered outside of Austin-East, lining up as students walked back into the building. It was a show of support for a grieving community.

“We stand in solidarity with our community and not only that, the family who have lost loved ones,” said Chris Carter, who stood outside. “We need to show the children, our youth, the support that we need, that we’re standing by them. We want them to be safe, we want our community to be safe.”

High schoolers returned to campus following a week of virtual learning as the school faced tragedy.

“The school is safe, unfortunately there’s some gun violence in our community, and I think the community is going to come together and deal with that. But the school is the best place for our students to be right now, both for their mental health and for their physical well being,” Langlois said.

The principal reiterated he doesn’t think the school itself was ever unsafe, but this first day back comes with some additional safety precautions.

Knoxville’s police chief said there would be increased patrols and intensified attention in the area surrounding Austin-East. It’s a move welcomed by the Knox County Schools superintendent, who previously said he was tired of the talk, and wanted action.

“Mayor Kincannon has made action happen actually by the additional police presence in the community,” said Superintendent Bob Thomas. “In terms of action on our side, want to look, make sure curriculum wise, are we doing everything we can do to teach our students, start our students at a young age in terms of gun violence and how to protect themselves and the right things to do and just working to instill those good values in our students at a younger age.”

And while hearts are still heavy after recently losing three students to gun violence, leaders are thankful for the community reaching out and showing up.

“I think all of Tennessee is sort of in mourning with Austin-East and I just want to say thank you, we appreciate it,” said Langlois.

Meanwhile, Knoxville police investigators are still trying to figure out who is behind the two most recent shootings that led to the death of Stanley Freeman Jr. and Janaria Muhammad. Officers are urging anyone who may know something to give them a call at 865-215-7212. Tips can remain anonymous.

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