After the Knox County Sheriff’s Office ignited a social media firestorm over claims deputies were denied service at a deli, the teen worker whose brother was killed by police last year lost her job. But the 15-year-old who asked a coworker to serve the officers was let go primarily because her age was below the company minimum.
Managers told her she’s welcome to reapply when she turns 16.
A letter from David Blackburn, CEO of Southern Rock Restaurants, which runs McAlister's Deli on Schaad Road, told the girl’s mother the teen was polite and showed a willingness to learn from the incident. The teen is the sister of Anthony Thompson Jr., a 17-year-old who was killed by Knoxville police inside his school.
After her brother's death, she decided to try homeschooling and found a part-time job to keep herself busy and provide the socialization her mother says she needed to begin to heal.
Chanada Robinson told Knox News her daughter has been brutally bullied online since the Nov. 21 incident – a time when the family is trying to pick up the pieces.
“I’m proud of her for wanting to work and hold down a job at 15. There was never any issue upon her being hired about her age,” she said with her daughter nearby.
“This was her very first job. And we wanted her to get out of the house and get a break from home school after her brother’s death. We are just trying to live a normal life, and it's been hard. How can we talk about mental health if adults are out here acting this way toward children?”
The Knox County Sheriff's office Facebook post about the encounter goes against how the teen and her coworker described it. The teen stepped away at 8 p.m. because it was the end of her shift and asked her 16-year-old coworker to take over, but the police post and a separate post from the department's spokeswoman said the teen "refused" to serve them.
A state of Tennessee separation notice dated Nov. 25 says a guest complaint led to the teen's firing because she didn't meet "performance standards" and because minors under 16 are ineligible to work for the restaurant.
Blackburn confirmed the girl’s termination and said he couldn't comment on the personnel issue.
“She violated our policies and would have been terminated anyway, because she is only 15,” he said. “She shouldn’t have been (hired). The manager missed that it was a policy issue.”
Blackburn decried the social media backlash, saying, “Social media is a tough place to resolve problems. The community gets divided so quickly.”
It comes down to age
The girl told Knox News the company knew she was 15 because she showed her birth certificate when she was hired and she discussed with managers the number of hours she could legally work.
The teen says she was never asked by McAlister's what happened when the deputies walked up, which was that she asked a coworker to take over.
After the incident erupted, Robinson said her daughter was asked to come in early before her shift to give a statement, but then they received a call telling them they did not want to meet at the store and would prefer to have a conversation by phone.
Back and forth over the encounter
On the day of the exchange, Knox County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Kimberly Glenn posted a description on her personal Facebook page even though she was not there. It blew up, garnering more than 800 shares within hours.
In her post, Glenn said she had received a phone call from three officers who told her the McAlister’s Deli staff refused to serve them.
“They spoke to the manager on duty, who didn’t seem concerned the cashier refused to serve them,” Glenn wrote.
Glenn updated her post to state her husband had emailed the corporate office, and the manager called to apologize.
“What happened was wrong and not necessary,” Glenn wrote.
Dozens commented on the post, many of whom called for a boycott of the restaurant and the firing of staff. The post has since been deleted.
Later, the Knox County Sheriff's Office shared a similar statement attributed to Sheriff Tom Spangler on its Facebook page, again saying a McAlister's cashier refused to take the officers' orders.
“We have immense empathy for law enforcement,” Blackburn, the CEO, said. “We’re just wanting to do the right thing. It’s unfortunate we have to rebuild our reputation.”
The teen, however, has a very different account that was corroborated by the coworker who tried to take the officers' orders.
At the counter
16-year-old Aneesa Rose told Knox News she was the one who switched registers with her coworker.
Rose, who had worked for the restaurant for over a year, said the officers walked away toward the door and returned minutes later to ask if her coworker didn’t want to take their orders because they are police officers.
"I told them it has nothing to do with them. Then they asked to speak with the manager,” Rose said. “I tried to take their order.”
Rose said the entire encounter was calm but officers escalated it, adding they used a gruff tone during the entire interaction.
“It’s as if they felt they were owed something is how it came off to me,” she said.
She has since left the job in protest of her coworker's treatment.
“I’m an honest person and I try to avoid conflict. What’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong," she said.
"Customers are priority but your employees should be also, and to work in a good and honest environment. With everything she has gone through she didn’t deserve this. I have so much empathy for her.”
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Anthony Thompson Jr. sister fired due to age after deputy complaint