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New disturbance at Tennessee detention center spotlights how teens are treated

Three days ago, 32 teens broke out of a Tennessee juvenile detention center. There was another disturbance Thursday. Juvenile-justice reform advocates say the way teens are managed in confinement needs to improve.

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    Teenagers are escorted to an awaiting Tennessee Department of Correction bus in custody after a riot at Woodland Hills Youth Development Center in Nashville, Tenn., early Thursday, Sept. 4.
    Jae S. Lee/The Tennessean/AP
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Three days after 32 teenagers escaped from a Tennessee juvenile detention center, two dozen teens broke out into the yard, creating a disturbance before dawn Thursday.

Some of the youths involved had been returned after Monday’s escape from the Woodland Hills Youth Development Center in Nashville. Police formed a ring around the fence to prevent another escape.

Ten leaders of Thursday’s disturbance were relocated to another facility for questioning, Tennessee Department of Children’s Services spokesman Rob Johnson said in an online update. As of Thursday afternoon, six of Monday’s escapees had not yet been apprehended.

The incidents shine a light on calls by juvenile-justice reform advocates to improve the way teen behavior is managed when youths are confined – through programming that addresses their needs and better relationships with well-trained staff.

“We can do a much better job of identifying the problems and responding to them before they turn into crises,” says Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas in Austin, who has researched violence in juvenile justice facilities.

A lot of people approach behavior management as what to do when youths misbehave, but “it’s about the need to create a system so there is discipline all the time," she says, noting that she is not familiar with the specific conditions at Woodland Hills. "By the time something reaches large-scale violence, escapes, and disturbances ... that’s telling me they don’t have effective systems and security procedures.”

Woodland Hills houses about 130 14- to 19-year-olds, many of them with three or more felonies on their record. It has had troubles dating back at least to 2004, when there was a violent escape attempt by more than a dozen teens.

Out of 201 staff positions at the facility, 26 were unfilled as of Wednesday. 

In 2010, Woodland Hills was among 13 facilities with the highest identifiable rates of sexual misconduct by staffers in the country – with 26 percent of residents victimized, according to a report by the US Department of Justice (DOJ). By 2012, a new survey showed that the rate there, 6.7 percent, was below both the national average and the rates of several other juvenile facilities in Tennessee.

Violence and calls to police for assistance at Woodland Hills spiked in 2012 after older teens were transferred there from a facility that closed.

High suicide rates and the excessive use of restraint devices also prompted the DOJ to probe juvenile justice in another part of Tennessee -- Shelby County – resulting in officials there agreeing to overhaul the system in 2012, The New York Times reported.

“Tennessee has a poor record when it comes to investing in at risk children before they get into trouble. A series of court rulings in recent years have found that Tennessee has failed to meet federal standards for children’s mental health, child protective services, and juvenile detention,” writes Gordon Bonnyman, executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center, in an email to the Monitor. 

But Tennessee isn’t the only place with trouble brewing in juvenile facilities. In August 2013, rioters at a Polk County, Fla., detention center damaged 18 out of 20 buildings, and officials had to call on more than 150 officers to quell the disturbance, the Tampa Tribune reported.

In both of this week’s incidents, teens left their rooms and kicked through aluminum panels beneath windows to enter the yard. The plan is now to reinforce the metal panels and add concrete at the bottom of the perimeter fence, through which the teens escaped Monday. The Department of Corrections is sending engineering staff to see if other security measures are needed, Mr. Johnson said.

The Department of Children's Services will review the longstanding policy that enables teens to push open the doors of their single rooms, which can only be entered with a key, Commissioner Jim Henry said. 

In addition to reforms within facilities, some states have shifted their juvenile-justice systems to decrease the number of youths sent there in the first place. Community-based corrections allow the juvenile offenders to live in a residential setting or at home while going through treatment programs or receiving other services. And crime rates haven’t spiked in those places.

“All the research has shown that we get more effective outcomes when youths are in community-based settings, rather than incarcerated in secure facilities far from their homes,” Ms. Deitch says. 

Because of that shift and a decline in juvenile crime, the population of juvenile offenders in residential placement declined 42 percent between 1997 and 2011, DOJ reports.

Tennessee is one of five states recently chosen to partner with the Council for State Governments Justice Center to implement recent recommendations to improve outcomes for youths in the juvenile-justice system.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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