Tennessee judge jailed minors on bogus charges following playground fights, cursing

A new investigation by ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio has uncovered an alarming pattern of arresting and detaining elementary school children in Rutherford County, Tennessee — some as young as 7 years old. Some are arrested for playground fights or cursing. A disproportionate number of the children arrested were Black. Lisa Desjardins gets more from Nashville Public Radio's Meribah Knight.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A new investigation by ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio has uncovered an alarming pattern of arresting and detaining elementary school children in one Tennessee county.

    Lisa Desjardins has the story.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Rutherford County, Tennessee, has detained a record number of children, some as young as 7 years old, in past years. Some were arrested for playground fights, others for cursing.

    In one 2016 case, four elementary school-age girls were detained for failing to intervene in a fight. A disproportionate number of the children involved and arrested were Black.

    Meribah Knight from Nashville Public Radio is the lead writer on the report. And she joins us now.

    Thank you so much, Meribah.

    The focus is on this one county, Rutherford County. And an attorney there told you, at one point, some 500 kids, he thought, had been arrested by mistake and another 1, 500 detained over a point of time as part of a jailing system that seems like it was subjective.

    Essentially, at points, police and judge were deciding on how the kid looked or how the kid was acting in a moment, whether they would be detained. At the center of your story is the arrest of 11 children surrounding that idea of a fight who intervened, who didn't.

    Can you explain exactly what happened with those kids and how?

  • Meribah Knight, Nashville Public Radio:

    Yes, thanks so much for having me.

    Essentially, you set it up really well. There were 11 children in all that were arrested for watching a fight. The two that were actually involved in fighting were so young, 5 and 6, that they weren't culpable for their actions, but the other children were.

    And they were arrested under the charge of criminal responsibility, which as we outlined in the story, was not even a real charge. It's a prosecutorial theory. So, one can't be charged with criminal responsibility. One can be, say, charged with assault under criminal responsibility.

    But that's just the beginning of kind of the myriad of mistakes that happened in this case. So, yes, they wound up arresting 11 kids in total, using this charge. There were an 8-year-old with pigtails arrested and handcuffed. A sixth grader fell to her knees. A fourth grader threw up in the assistant principal's office when she found out she was being arrested.

    It was just a terrible, terrible experience for these children and a terrible moment for this system. But it really shined a light on what was happening.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Help us understand the role of those in power who seemed to even create this system, an elected judge and then also police officers. How did this happen?

  • Meribah Knight:

    Yes, so these arrests, as you outline, took place in Rutherford County, which, as we write in the story, had been illegally arresting and jailing kids for years, all under the watch of one judge, juvenile court Judge Donna Scott Davenport.

    She has been the county's only juvenile court judge since 2000, when the court began. And she has a really outsized role. She oversees the courts, and she oversees the juvenile jail. And up until this incident, she directed police on what she called our process for arresting kids, which basically was every child who was arrested, even for something minor, like this or like truancy, they must first go to the jail.

    The judge told law enforcement this explicitly in a memo. This is not normal routine procedure with children. Then, the second part of this is that, once they got to the jail, they were subjected to something called the filter system, which was implemented by the jailer, Lynn Duke.

    And that was an overly broad assessment of what a child was deemed — whether a child was deemed a true threat. I can talk more about that, but it was overly broad, it was illegal, and it was happening for decades.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    There's a lot of discussion about this topic of what incarceration does.

    The judge in this case has argued on radio shows that this policy was meant to build character and that kids would come out of this detention system better. What did you find about how kids were affected?

  • Meribah Knight:

    I had an interview with one child who simply said to me: "We're not coming out better."

    This has affected children in so many ways. We open the story with this mass arrest. The children involved in that, many of them had to go to counseling. They were lucky enough to get settlements from the county, where there was money earmarked for counseling.

    But I talked to them, and they had bad dreams. They were scared they were going to get picked up at school and arrested again at any moment. There was another young man we spoke to who was kept four days and denied his medication for bipolar. After he was released, he was put on house arrest, and he tried to commit suicide three times in the coming year.

    So the impact on these children is real, it is ever-present, and it is wide-ranging.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Is this still happening? And have there been any repercussions for the people who put this policy in place?

  • Meribah Knight:

    There have been no repercussions, except for this settlement.

    Some of this has been stopped, thanks to federal judges intervening when lawyers have brought class-action lawsuits. They have forced the filter system to stop. They have forced solitary confinement to stop.

    But the architects of this system are still in power. The judge is still the judge. The jailer is still the jailer. And there's also other mechanisms of oversight that are woefully inadequate that we outline in the story.

    Just one example is the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, they license juvenile jails across the state. They inspected this facility twice a year, and never once did they flag this illegal system. And it was right there in black and white in the manual for this facility.

    So, yes, there's been some consequences, as far as money and payouts to families, but the architects are still there and the systems of oversight are still inadequate.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Such important reporting.

    Meribah Knight of Nashville Public Radio, thank you for joining us.

  • Meribah Knight:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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