PUBLIC POLICY – Outrage Over Tennessee University’s Jailing Of Children

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dWeb.News Article from Daniel Webster dWeb.News

This article was created for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, in partnership with Nashville Public Radio . Sign up for Dispatches and receive similar stories as they become available.

In the days after ProPublica’s investigation of the juvenile justice system in Rutherford County, Tennessee, one state lawmaker wrote that she was “horrified.” Another called it a “nightmare.” A third labeled it “unchecked barbarism.” A former Tennessee congressman posted the story about the unlawful jailing of kids and tweeted, “The most sickening and unAmerican thing I’ve read about in some time.” The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund called for a federal civil rights investigation. In his Sunday sermon in Nashville, a pastor said that “We cannot allow this madness continue.” These are our children .”

And on Tuesday evening, four day after the article was published, the president at Middle Tennessee State University informed faculty and staff that Donna Scott Davenport (a juvenile court judge at heart of the investigation) “is no longer associated with the University.” Davenport previously taught adjunct at the school which is located in Murfreesboro. She taught a course in juvenile justice for many years. In 2015, she was one of the university’s commencement speakers.

Davenport did not respond to a request for an interview sent Tuesday evening. For our earlier story ., she declined to be interviewed. On Friday, ProPublica published a detailed account, in partnership with Nashville Public Radio, about Rutherford County’s juvenile justice system, which Davenport oversees. The story chronicled how the county had illegally arrested and jailed children for years and in June settled a class-action lawsuit, agreeing to pay up to $11 million. On Wednesday, a Rutherford County spokeswoman stated in an email that she hadn’t had the chance to meet with Davenport regarding the interview request. She provided a written statement from the county’s mayor, Bill Ketron, which said in part, “I share our community’s concerns over a news story that was recently released involving Rutherford County’s juvenile justice system.” The mayor’s statement said that because of ongoing litigation in federal court, the county is “very limited in what can be discussed.”

Davenport is a graduate of MTSU, where she earned associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, according to a university press release from 2015. Davenport has often spoken out about her background in law enforcement during a radio segment. In a sworn deposition in 2017, she said that while a student at MTSU she worked full time as a university police officer for two to three years. Her personnel file was obtained by the university through a public records request. It showed that she was a part-time dispatcher and then a full time clerk-typist. Finally, she was a fulltime secretary.

This year, Davenport’s LinkedIn profile said she had begun working as an adjunct at MTSU in 1996. Her profile is no more online. She passed the bar one year earlier, in 1995, on her fifth attempt, she told lawyers in a deposition. In 1998, she was appointed to be a juvenile court referee, a position akin to a judge. In 2000, she won election to the newly created position of Rutherford County juvenile court judge, a job she has held ever since, winning reelection two times. She stated previously that she would run for an eight-year term next year.

Davenport’s MTSU personnel file shows that when she taught a three-credit course on juvenile justice in the fall of 2020, she was paid $2,400.

On Tuesday evening, a one-sentence email signed by MTSU’s president, Sidney McPhee, was sent to the university’s faculty and staff. It stated that adjunct instructor Judge Donna Scott Davenport’s actions in overseeing Rutherford County Juvenile Court had been highlighted in national media reports. She is now not affiliated with the University. Students were also notified by the president via Facebook.

We asked the university for an interview with McPhee. We asked McPhee to be interviewed by MTSU.

On Sunday, Vincent Windrow, senior pastor at Olive Branch Church in Murfreesboro and Nashville, delivered a sermon at both branches centered on the revelations by ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio about Rutherford County’s juvenile justice system. The story included a detailed account of Murfreesboro police arresting four Black girls at an elementary school in 2016. Two of the girls were handcuffed, the other being an 8-year old. They were accused of being present at a fight between two boys and not intervening. They were charged with “criminal liability for conduct of another”, which is not a crime. All charges were dropped later. )

“How traumatic must it have been, as someone who is in elementary school, to be handcuffed? They were going to resist arrest. As a 9-year-old, as a 10-year-old?” the pastor told the congregation in Nashville, according to a video of the sermon. “How in the world do we expect folk to respect law enforcement when they get treated with such a lack of dignity, such a lack of respect, such a lack of love?”

“How can we expect our children to grow up and admire police when they have been treated in such a contemptible way?”

“Who will it be next? It is your child. Let it end, and let it end now.”

Windrow also works at MTSU, where he serves as associate vice provost for student success. He encouraged parishioners in Sunday’s sermon to contact the MTSU president or governing board and ask them why Davenport was allowed to go on. Windrow asked, “What’s she teaching them?” What are they learning in criminal justice administration classes? What message is she trying convey to them? More of the same?”

In Rutherford County, Davenport instructed police on what she called “our process,” telling them that upon arresting children, they should take them to the juvenile detention center. Staff used a policy known as the “filter system” in deciding which children to keep. This system was broad and vague and illegal. A federal judge ordered an end to it in 2017. Davenport is responsible for the operation of the juvenile detention center. He also appointed its director. In 2014, among cases referred to juvenile court, Rutherford County locked up children in 48% of its cases. The state average was 5%.

In 2015, in a commencement speech at MTSU, Davenport told graduates that to be successful, “you need to consider yourself in the people business,” according to a video excerpt of her address.

In a commencement speech at MTSU, Davenport said that to be successful, “you need to consider yourself in the people business.” According to a Murfreesboro Daily News Journal article, Davenport stated that honesty, integrity, and a sense for justice were key traits.

After ProPublica published its story, Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, wrote a thread on Twitter; she said she was “horrified” and called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate. WKRN, a Nashville television station, published a story in which a state senator, Jeff Yarbro, said, “It’s a horror show plain and simple,” and state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, in a written statement, called it “unchecked barbarism,” adding, “we must admit that we’ve failed too many for far too long.”

Gloria Johnson, a state representative, tweeted, “Our Democratic caucus will work to make sure this never happens again.” In an email to ProPublica, she wrote, “It is unimaginable and must be corrected.” State Sen. Heidi Campbell also wrote to ProPublica, saying of the story, “As you might imagine, we are all horrified by it.”

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