A new report from ProPublica highlights a troubling trend in a Tennessee county: illegally locking children up for years without proper justification. According to the investigation, officials in Rutherford County, Tennessee, have been allowing jailers to decide whether a child arrested and taken to the juvenile detention center should be released. Tennessee law, however, only allows children to be held under specific circumstances and for specific durations. 

ProPublica's report highlighted a 2016 incident which fueled outrage in the community. The incident involved 11 elementary school children, all Black, who were arrested for allegedly watching a fight between a 5-year-old, a 6-year-old and one older boy and not intervening. The arrested children from Hobgood Elementary School were charged with “criminal responsibility for conduct of another.” According to the latest report, however, the alleged crime does not exist in Tennessee law.

The 2016 altercation, which allegedly started when one child insulted the mother of another kid, took place off of school grounds after the students finished a game of basketball. Video of the incident later surfaced on YouTube, showing two small children punching a larger boy while he was walking away. When police later came to the school, they didn't arrest the children involved in the fight. But they came looking for those who witnessed the altercation. 

According to ProPublica, the YouTube video was posted with the children's faces blurred. Still, officers had already obtained juvenile petitions for the students who were accused of failing to stop the fight. 

Chris Williams was one of three officers who were in the principal's office when police came to get the children. While Williams was pleading with principal Tammy Garrett, telling her not to give the students to police, officer Jeff Carroll demanded to get the children. The third officer, Albert Miles III, remained quiet.

Garrett asked the officers if she could first call the students' parents. But Carroll declined to grant her request. The principal also informed the officers that one of the students is diabetic. Police then allowed the girl to get a shot in the nurse’s office before taking her to jail with the other students. 

Chrystal Templeton, the officer who had investigated the video and instigated the arrests, was suspended for three days after the police department completed an internal investigation. Three other supervisors also received a reprimand.

Judge Donna Scott Davenport, the county's only juvenile court judge, remains on the job despite writing the memo which allowed children to be arrested unjustly. The policy, written in 2003, permitted officers to always make a physical arrest and take children to the county’s detention center after a summons is issued, WPLN News reports.  

Rutherford County faced a lawsuit after the 2016 controversy and settled the matter, agreeing to pay out a combined $397,500 to the 11 children. Earlier this year, the county also agreed to pay up to $11 million to settle a class-action lawsuit over its policies for arresting and detaining children. 

The juvenile detention rate in Rutherford County was nearly 10 times higher than the state average due to the controversial policies, according to WPLN. In Tennessee, the statewide average for how often children were locked up after being referred to juvenile court was 5%. In Rutherford County, however, the number is 48%.