By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Thirty-two teens “overwhelmed” their minders and escaped from a juvenile detention center by crawling under a weak spot in a fence, a state government spokesman said. Hours later Tuesday, eight were still on the run.
Police caught up with some walking along roads or coming out of the woods. Some turned themselves in. And some were swiftly delivered back to the detention center by their own families, concerned about what other trouble they might face on the outside.
“He broke loose, he was gone, but he’s back now,” said LaWanda Knowles, whose nephew joined the escape. “I just want to know that he’s here safely and he’s OK — I don’t want the police jumping on him, nobody beating on him or nothing.”
The teens — ages 14 to 19 — left their rooms at the Woodland Hills Youth Development Center at about 11 p.m. Monday night and “overwhelmed” the staff in a common area, said Tennessee Department of Children’s Services spokesman Rob Johnson.
“Staffing was lighter during the overnight hours, so presumably they had planned for that,” Johnson said.
The group then kicked out a metal panel under a window to get into a yard, and ran for a chain-link fence. The fence is buried 8 inches deep into the ground, but the teens managed to pull up a weak portion and slip out underneath it.
None of the 16 to 18 staff members on duty were hurt, officials said. Once they spotted the teens escaping the perimeter, they alerted police, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol joined the search on Tuesday.
While juvenile records are sealed, police released the names and mugshots of the remaining eight fugitives, all of whom are 17 or 18 years old.
Knowles said police had come searching for her nephew around 5 a.m. at his home about 8 miles from the facility. The teen showed up about two hours later, and briefly saw his parents and family, she said.
“He wanted to see his mom, and nieces and nephews and his sisters, so he came home,” she said. “But when we found out that he ran, I jumped in my truck and put him in there and brought him back.”
Once back in custody, the teens who escaped were being taken to juvenile court to face potential escape charges, officials said.
Most of the 78 juvenile delinquents held at the center Monday night had committed at least three felonies, Johnson said, but the facility is more like a high school with security than an adult prison. There are no guard towers or barbed wire.
The teens stay in single rooms that for their own security are locked on the outside, so that only those with keys can enter. But they can push their room doors open if they need to. They wear blue pants with white or light gray T-shirts, with no markings.
The center has a school, offers vocational training and career counseling, and works to move teens to less restrictive settings, according to a state website. It holds them until their 19th birthdays. All have been charged as juveniles, not adults.
Woodland Hills has 191 staff positions, but 28 of them are vacant, and during sleeping hours, there is only 1 staffer for every 16 students, the state website said.
The fence was fixed and the center was calm and back under control Tuesday morning, Johnson said. Police cars were on the scene, but there was little activity at the center or its neighbors — a women’s prison, several trucking company offices, a frozen pizza plant and a liquor distributor.
It’s not the first time teens have broken out of their dorms there. The Tennessean newspaper reported in May that a half-dozen escaped into a courtyard, but never made it any farther.