Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Disturbance at Tennessee Detention Center Spotlights How Teens Are Treated

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

New Disturbance at Tennessee Detention Center Spotlights How Teens Are Treated

Article excerpt

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. …

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