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The Coward of Rutherford County

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Well this seems bad:

In the assistant principal’s office at Hobgood, the officer telling Garrett not to get the kids was Chris Williams. Williams, who is Black, had been a Murfreesboro cop for five years. “What in the world?” he thought, when he learned what these arrests were about. At Hobgood, two-thirds of the students were Black or Latino. Williams wondered if such arrests would be made at a school that was mostly white. He had a daughter who was 9. He pictured her being arrested. This is going to blow up, he thought; I’m going to end up in federal court over this. He considered quitting, but instead tried to get someone to intervene. Tucked in an office corner, he called a sergeant, a lieutenant and a major, but couldn’t find anyone to call it off.

The officer not saying anything was Albert Miles III. Growing up, Miles, who is Black, had friends who hated the police. But Miles’ dad was a cop. Miles wanted to prove that police could be trusted. That afternoon, Miles had been pulled out of roll call along with another officer; a sergeant told the two to go arrest some kids at Hobgood. The sergeant didn’t say why, but at Hobgood, Miles started picking up details. Miles, too, wondered if these arrests would happen at a school full of white students.

The third officer at Hobgood was Jeff Carroll. He’d been pulled out of roll call with Miles. Carroll, who is white, was a patrol officer and SWAT team member. In evaluations, supervisors praised him as a leader, “cool under pressure.” Carroll also had no idea what these arrests were about. But his sergeant had ordered them, and he followed orders. Carroll was the officer telling the principal: Go get the kids.

Garrett asked if she could call their parents first. Carroll told her no. Garrett told the police that one girl had diabetes and got treatment when she arrived home after school. Please, the principal said. Let me call her parent. On this, the police ultimately compromised, saying the girl could get a shot in the nurse’s office before being taken to the jail.

Of the two officers telling Garrett what to do — get the kids, don’t get the kids — Carroll seemed the more aggressive, the principal would say later. She agreed to get the kids.

Having these arrests take place at Hobgood was not something school officials wanted. They wanted kids to feel safe at school. Garrett grew up poor. Nine-tenths of her students were poor. Years before, Hobgood had struggled academically. Now it was a celebrated success. Garrett and her staff had worked to build trust with parents, with students. “I don’t give up on kids,” Garrett says. But she knew that trust is fragile, and trauma endures.

As Garrett gathered the girls from their classrooms, she believed the police would at least avoid a spectacle. School let out at 2:30. That was minutes away. Garrett’s understanding was that the police would keep the girls in the office until school was dismissed and everyone else was gone.

Garrett rounded up the sixth grader, a tall girl with braids who had visions of becoming a police officer; one of the fourth graders, the girl with diabetes; and the 8-year-old third grader. In the hallway, the principal tried to prepare them, saying the police were there regarding a video of a fight. Hearing this, the sixth grader told Garrett that the two other girls hadn’t even been there.

After returning to the office with the three girls, Garrett relayed to police what the sixth grader had told her.

Her words were barely out when Carroll made it clear he’d had enough, Garrett said later when interviewed as part of an internal police investigation.

Carroll pulled out handcuffs and put them “right in my face,” Garrett recalled.

So Rutherford County, Tennessee just arrests Black kids left and right. Who is responsible for this?

Eleven children in all were arrested over the video, including the 8-year-old taken in by mistake. Media picked up the story. Parents and community leaders condemned the actions of police. “Unimaginable, unfathomable,” a Nashville pastor said. “Unconscionable,” “inexcusable,” “insane,” three state legislators said. But Rutherford County’s juvenile court judge focused instead on the state of youth, telling a local TV station: “We are in a crisis with our children in Rutherford County. … I’ve never seen it this bad.”

Rutherford County established the position of elected juvenile court judge in 2000, and ever since, Donna Scott Davenport has been the job’s only holder. She sometimes calls herself the “mother of the county.”

Davenport runs the juvenile justice system, appointing magistrates, setting rules and presiding over cases that include everything from children accused of breaking the law to parents accused of neglecting their children. While the county’s mayor, sheriff and commissioners have turned over, she has stayed on, becoming a looming figure for thousands of families. “She’s been the judge ever since I was a kid,” said one mother whose own kids have cycled through Davenport’s courtroom. One man, now in his late 20s, said that when he was a kid in trouble, he would pray for a magistrate instead of Davenport: “If she’s having a bad day, most definitely, you’re going to have a bad day.”

While juvenile court is mostly private, Davenport keeps a highly public profile. For the past 10 years she’s had a monthly radio segment on WGNS, a local station where she talks about her work.

She sees a breakdown in morals. Children lack respect: “It’s worse now than I’ve ever seen it,” she said in 2012. Parents don’t parent: “It’s just the worst I’ve ever seen,” she said in 2017. On WGNS, Davenport reminisces with the show’s host about a time when families ate dinner together and parents always knew where their children were and what friends they were with because kids called home from a landline, not some could-be-anywhere cellphone. Video games, the internet, social media — it’s all poison for children, the judge says.

Davenport describes her work as a calling. “I’m here on a mission. It’s not a job. It’s God’s mission,” she told a local newspaper. The children in her courtroom aren’t hers, but she calls them hers. “I’m seeing a lot of aggression in my 9- and 10-year-olds,” she says in one radio segment.

She encourages parents troubled by their children’s behavior to use over-the-counter kits to test them for drugs. “Don’t buy them at the Dollar Tree,” she says on the radio. “The best ones are your reputable drugstores.”

Scrutinizing the inner workings of Tennessee’s juvenile courts can be difficult. Court files are mostly off-limits; proceedings can be closed at a judge’s discretion. But on the radio, Davenport provides listeners a glimpse of the court’s work. “I’ve locked up one 7-year-old in 13 years, and that was a heartbreak,” she said in 2012. “But 8- and 9-year-olds, and older, are very common now.”

Davenport has lots of favorite sayings. “God don’t make no junk,” she says to kids, to instill self-worth. To instill fear, she will say, “I’m going to let you be young and dumb — one time.” There’s no jury in juvenile court, so Davenport decides the facts as well as the law. “And that is why I should get 12 times the pay,” she likes to joke.

Oh, I think God does make some junk. Some very white junk.

But hey, I should be fired here for teaching some of that Critical Race Theory, by which I mean mentioning racists who throw Black kids into jail.

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