Housed in an unlikely building at an unlikely place, the L&N STEM Academy also has a very unlikely distinction: More serious crime - far more - is reported around it than around any other Knox County public school.
A 10News investigation shows from 2012 through February 2017, there were 1,917 reported crimes within a half-mile of the science and technology high school, which has become a jewel in the Knox County Schools system.
Sitting at the bustling corner of Henley Street and Western Avenue downtown, the former rail station is not in a traditional neighborhood. It draws little pedestrian traffic; most students commute. And it's not easy to get to because of its awkward access.
It's also perceived as perfectly safe, while other inner-city schools are not.
The STEM academy is but one example of the complex and nuanced nature of crime data in the city and county.
Several urban Knox County middle and high schools sit within a half-mile of sometimes startling violence, the 10News investigation reveals: crimes like homicide, rape and aggravated assault.
Other schools located in what are perceived as quiet or safe neighborhoods rank within the top 15 for greatest number of reported crimes among the district's 80 regular schools. And around some middle and high schools in Knox County, there are fewer than three serious reported crimes per year, on average, according to a five-year review of police and sheriff's office data.
"Any area that you're going to have a more densely populated area, you're going to have more crime. And a lot of our schools are in densely populated areas, commercial areas," Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen said. "When you get in those types of areas, that's where you are going to have your burglaries. That's where you're going to have your thefts. And that's where the majority of your crime is going to happen."
Law enforcement and school officials urge parents to pay attention to where they choose to send their child. They also say the amount of reported crime that occurs around a middle or high school is not an indication of the school's actual safety. Figures show very little crime actually occurs within any school's walls, and Knox County Schools has spent millions in recent years to boost security measures, things like fences, extra patrols, cameras and controlled access.
Some parents still insist it's safer to be out in the suburbs. Parent Jamia Gilland went the opposite direction.
Gilland, who lives in the Carter area of East Knox County, sends one daughter to Holston Middle and one to Fulton High. Both schools are in older, urban areas of Knoxville.
"I would put Fulton up against any other high school in the county," she said. "Whenever I drop her off, I know that the administration there, the teachers, that she's being taken care of."
Reported crimes around high, middle schools
10News identified serious reported crimes in the county from 2012 through February 2017 and matched them with the locations of 80 Knox County public schools. The database consists of all serious reported crime that occurred in that time within a half-mile of each school, as reported to the Knoxville Police Department and the Knox County Sheriff's Office.
L&N STEM Academy immediately stuck out.
There were 449 more crimes reported around it than around any other Knox County school, at 1,917 overall reported crimes.
The next closest was Green Magnet Academy with 1,468. The next closest middle or high school to L&N was Austin-East, with 1,022.
Among the crimes that occurred in that zone around L&N, which opened in August 2011: one homicide; more than 300 thefts from buildings; 270 burglaries; 219 vehicle thefts; 201 aggravated assaults; 156 robberies; and 35 rapes, figures show.
But it's considered to be perfectly safe. The closest homes to it are to the north and east in downtown Knoxville or to the west in apartment complexes in Fort Sanders. But it's also in a densely populated area with commercial developments.
The numbers don't always tell the full story, KPD Chief David Rausch said.
"There are amazing schools in our inner city," he said. "It's just that they get caught up in that perception issue."
After L&N, the high schools with the most reported crime are Austin-East in East Knoxville and Fulton High in North Knoxville.
Around Austin-East, within the reported time period, there were six homicides; 260 aggravated assaults; 217 burglaries; 135 thefts from a building; 117 vehicle thefts; 109 robberies and 33 rapes.
Around Fulton, there were no homicides in that time period; 206 reported burglaries; 212 "other" larcenies; 193 thefts from a building; 124 vehicle thefts; 111 aggravated assaults; 97 robberies and 16 rapes.
Two West Knoxville high schools typically viewed as being in safer locations actually ranked fairly high on the overall list of reported crime around Knox County schools.
Bearden High School, for example, ranked 11th overall, with 512 reported crimes within the time period, including no homicides, 145 thefts from buildings; 131 break-ins to buildings; and six rapes.
West High ranked 15th, with 416 total reported crimes in the period. That includes one homicide; 165 burglaries to buildings; 55 thefts from a building; 47 aggravated assaults; and 11 rapes.
Three high schools stand out for the low amount of reported crimes that occurred within a half-mile of the grounds. South-Doyle in South Knoxville had 23 over the five-year period: Gibbs in far North Knox County had 16; and Karns in Northwest Knox County had 11.
Among middle schools, Vine, Whittle Springs and Gresham stand out as being surrounded by the most reported crime. Vine is in East Knoxville, Whittle Springs is in North Knoxville and Gresham is in the Fountain City area.
The half-mile area around Vine ranks seventh overall for reported serious crime - 897 - within the five-year period. It saw six homicides, which is among the highest number around any school. Other categories: 236 reported aggravated assaults; 176 burglaries; 137 thefts from buildings; 100 robberies; 87 vehicle thefts; and 37 rapes.
Around Whittle Springs: no homicides; 129 burglaries; 71 thefts from buildings; 48 vehicle thefts; 30 aggravated assaults; 22 robberies and 12 rapes. It ranked 17th among all Knox County schools with a total of 391 reported total serious crimes.
Around Gresham, which ranked 20th among all schools, there were no homicides within a half mile; 147 burglaries; 60 thefts; 40 vehicle thefts; 30 aggravated assaults; 12 robberies; and three rapes. There were a total of 337 reported serious crimes during the five-year period.
The three middle schools around which the least amount of reported crimes occurred were Farragut Middle in Farragut with 46, West Valley Middle in West Knox County with 43 and Carter Middle in East Knox County with 18, figures show.
Almost no violent crime occurred near the three, according to the database.
"When you get a school out in a community where there's nothing around the school, nothing to break into, nothing to steal, then, clearly, your crime numbers are going to be less in those particular areas," DA Allen said.
Safe schools for all
On the list of 10 schools with the highest reported surrounding crime, more serious incidents occurred near elementary schools - six - than either high schools or middle schools.
That's because more elementary schools are located within dense, urban and poorer areas. Most middle and high schools tend to be located farther out in more suburban or even rural locations with lower populations, figures showed. Plus, the district has 50 elementary schools, compared to 14 middle schools and 16 high schools.
Other school systems in the state show higher rates of surrounding crime, said Mike Edwards, president and CEO of the Knoxville Chamber and a member of the state Board of Education.
While the rates around some Knox County schools are eye-opening, Edwards, a lifelong Knoxvillian, said he thinks based on his experience that schools within the system are safe.
Superintendent Bob Thomas said the district over the last two fiscal years has spent an estimated $7.1 million for items including fencing and surveillance camera systems.
"We've taken steps to secure schools," said Thomas, a 40-year veteran of the school system who was appointed this spring to oversee the 59,000-student district.
The database shows clearly there's less reported crime in the suburbs and in the county's rural areas. Officials acknowledge that parents, if they are able, often seek out those kinds of places to raise and educate their children.
Where choice is not an option, the city is doing what it can to boost communities to improve property values, encourage development, reduce blight and bring down crime.
Rogero cites her own experience as a mother trying to raise a family. When she first moved to the area, they located first in Northwest Knoxville and then in North Knoxville. Her children went to more urban schools - Lincoln Park, which is no longer an elementary school, along with Belle Morris Elementary, Whittle Springs and Fulton.
"They got a fabulous education," said Rogero, who now lives in South Knoxville. "They both did extremely well in college."
Gilland, the parent who herself, attended Carter High School and still lives in the Carter area, offers herself as an example of someone who is confident of more urban options for her two daughters, Kaylee and Lexie.
Holston Middle and Fulton High, which her daughters attend, offer the kind of unique programs that she wants for her children. She drives the two girls to their respective out-of-zone schools daily.
Gilland said she's comfortable that her 11th-grade daughter is safe at Fulton and getting a good education.
"I think a lot of people who know me think it's a little crazy that I actually, you know, drop one off at one school. 'Why don't they go to their zoned school?'" she said. "But I feel that Kaylee is best suited for Holston and I feel like Lexie fits in very well at Fulton. And Lexie excels at Fulton."
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