By Sheila Burke, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Tennessee police officer tried to prevent the arrests that would embroil his department in a national furor over policing in schools, but his colleagues and supervisors refused to change course.
They insisted on arresting children as young as 9 years old at their elementary school and took them away— two in handcuffs — in view of waiting parents to a juvenile detention center as the school day came to an end.
What followed in Murfreesboro, about 30 miles southeast of Nashville, was an unusually public examination of how police handle children suspected of wrongdoing. Amid protests from parents and community leaders, the incident put the new police chief, Karl Durr — who had come from Oregon less than two weeks earlier — in a tough spot.
The chief formed a committee with a mandate to examine the situation. It found a series of internal conflicts and miscommunications between police and school authorities leading up to the arrests on April 15. The committee’s report, though partially redacted, lays bare a reality that frustrates many parents in communities across the nation: Officers assigned to schools often have wide leeway when handling juveniles, and the interests of children don’t always come first.
Ten children, all African-Americans 9 to 12 years old, were taken to the juvenile detention center that day. Their alleged crime: taking part in some off-campus neighborhood bullying weeks earlier. Some kids had recorded the bullying on their smartphones. An excerpt posted online shows a group of kids following and taunting a boy who shakes off some punches from smaller children.
The report says Officer Chris Williams wasn’t aware of the planned arrests at Hobgood Elementary when he arrived. He later was told the students would be pulled out of class just before the afternoon bell. Bad idea, he thought.
The school’s principal, Tammy Garrett, also tried to intervene, texting another officer to ask why the children couldn’t be arrested at their homes, to avoid a spectacle during the school’s afternoon dismissal.
But the text went unanswered, and two other officers who had concerns remained silent. And as Williams went up the chain of command, he was told to follow orders.
The bullying episode took place off school grounds, and was posted on YouTube on March 20. It’s not clear exactly when it happened, and why officers waited for weeks to make the arrests at school. Murfreesboro Police spokesman Kyle Evans said in an email that state law prohibits him from answering these questions. Juvenile court petitions show 10 children — mostly boys — were charged with “criminal responsibility for the actions of another.”
The report recommends 16 areas for improvement, including “establish protocol for juvenile operations in schools,” and seeing that police supervisors are “proactively and fully addressing concerns of other officers.” A group of local ministers joined the effort to put the plan in motion, recommending firmer standards and lines that shouldn’t be crossed.
The officer who obtained the petition against the children has since been transferred, and a supervisor is on paid leave while under investigation.
The report placed no blame on Williams, who did not respond to a request from The Associated Press for comment. But he apologized to members of his own church congregation and others during a public meeting at the First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro, with Chief Durr in the audience.
Williams told the crowd his wife had only seen him cry twice: when his grandfather died and after the children were arrested, according to a report from WKRN.
“The principal shed tears, the vice principal shed tears, and the office staff shed tears,” Williams added.
The Rev. James McCarroll, the church’s pastor, said he thinks the new chief and other local officials want juvenile justice reforms that could create “a model for the rest of the country.”
But he said this goes way beyond Rutherford County.
“The school-to-prison pipeline is a problem around the country,” McCarroll said.
Lawyers and juvenile justice experts say it shows just how far the system can go off the rails when no one considers what’s best for the children.
Nationwide, the treatment of children in criminal justice situations is generally up to each jurisdiction. Some states allow even young children to be arrested; others don’t. Some have policies against shackling and handcuffing of kids; others make no exceptions. Some cities allow police to issue citations to juveniles rather than arrest them. Some states require parents to be present when children are interrogated.
Unlike some other states, Tennessee doesn’t have a minimum age for when a child can be arrested.
Murfreesboro follows Rutherford County’s policy of not citing juveniles, which means children must be brought to the juvenile detention center for even the most minor infractions, unless an officer decides to issue a verbal warning.
“I can’t understand why we would treat a juvenile more harshly then we are treating adults who are accused of a crime,” said Tom Castelli, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.
There is no clear national data showing how often children are handcuffed like adult criminals for relatively minor offenses, said Terry Maroney, a law professor at Vanderbilt University.
“It’s safe to think this happens less frequently than you fear, but more than what you would like,” Maroney said.