- Associated Press - Monday, September 22, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A troubled youth development center in Middle Tennessee was having problems in the months leading up to 32 teens escaping from the facility, according to recent data.

The information obtained by The Tennessean (https://tnne.ws/1pooNan) shows between January and early September, there were 145 reported incidents of violence at Woodland Hills. That included 39 assaults by teens on other teens, 51 assaults by teens on staff and 55 fights between the youths, who typically range in age from 14 to 19.

The teens who escaped on Sept. 1 did so by crawling under a weak spot in the perimeter fence. Two days later, riots broke out on the grounds of the facility, with teens brandishing fire extinguishers and sticks.

All but two of the teens have been recaptured.

Everette Parrish, an attorney appointed to represent the civil rights of youths at the facility, said he has received several reports from youths who escaped and returned, or were captured, that physical abuse had factored into their decision to flee.

“I’m hearing enough consistent stories by enough youth that I’m deeply concerned about a very small number of guards at the facility,” Parrish said.

A special unit within the Department of Children’s Services has opened investigations into abuse and neglect of teens at the facility, officials said last week.

Since the incidents, security officers have lodged complaints with the Tennessee State Employees Union about violence and chronic understaffing at the facility, according to executive director John Summer, who plans to reach out to DCS Commissioner Jim Henry and legislators with the security officers’ concerns.

“All assaults are concerning,” said Monica Middlebrooks, DCS deputy commissioner for juvenile justice.

DCS Superintendent of Facilities Joel Player said officials are working to rectify problems at Woodland Hills, but he cautioned the assault numbers alone don’t tell the whole story.

“Just so the numbers aren’t misleading, a lot of those may not be as major as it seems,” Player said, noting his department’s policy requires reporting even non-injury incidents, such as teen placing his hands on a guard.

Steps to make improvements at the facility include retrofitting all the dorms to provide more security, adding additional metal plates to doors, and construction has begun on a low concrete buffer to surround the perimeter fence.

The department has also requested a security audit be performed on all three of its youth development centers. The other two are in West and East Tennessee.

The audit is part of a report that was sent to Gov. Bill Haslam earlier this month about improvements being made at the centers.

Haslam spokesman Dave Smith told The Associated Press at the time that the governor had received the department’s information and visited Woodland Hills.

“The department is working hard at our youth development centers to get the balance right between helping young people to be able to re-enter the community … and making sure the environment is safe and secure,” Smith said.

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Information from: The Tennessean, https://www.tennessean.com

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