KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Knox County District Attorney said there is an active gang member in every public middle and high school in the county, and that authorities are observing a trend of younger teens stealing cars on the behest of gang members.
Charme Allen said the increase in youth violence in Knoxville can be attributed to loose gang activity and to the availability of guns.
"We have way too many kids under 21 carrying weapons around," Allen said. "I think what’s driving the uptick in violence in the actual violence and homicides and serious criminal activity is the availability of guns to folks under 21."
She said the availability of guns is escalating disagreements among teenagers into deadly shootings, "Instead of fistfights or yelling, it’s just pulling out guns and shooting at each other."
Allen said gangs have a strategy of recruiting younger teenagers. It not only grooms potential future members, people under 18 likely face lesser charges in juvenile court for crimes committed on behalf of gangs.
It's not uncommon, she said, for gangs to recruit 13 and 14 year-olds, "As a community, we should be concerned that there are gang members in all of our schools."
"This ain’t nothing new though," said Lawrence Williams, who leads the Safe Haven House in East Knoxville. "We were saying years ago that they were getting younger and younger."
His organization works to provide alternative opportunities for youth at risk of joining or participating in a gang.
"We have violence prevention this, we have violence prevention that — but yet still we see violence keep rising. Something is wrong with that picture," he said, bemoaning local leaders who he said don't do enough to support grassroots organizations like his.
"Right now, there’s nothing really for these young men to do," he said.
10News asked Knox County Schools for an interview with School Security Chief Jason Periard. A spokesperson said, "The chief continues to evaluate and work on plans for the School Security department." The spokesperson declined to make him available for an interview. Periard started at KCS before the 2021-2022 school year.