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Hey, everyone, it's Sabrinna. I'm just jumping in here to tell you that today we're sharing the first episode of a brand new series from our colleagues over at Cereal Productions. It's called The Kids of Rutherford County. I don't want to give away too much, but I will tell you that the show does one of the most powerful things journalism can do, which is to examine how we treat the most vulnerable among us, in this case, young children. The show tells the story of a juvenile detention center in Tennessee. From the beginning, the realities that lays out are pretty shocking. But even more than that, I want to say they're illuminating. They help you understand the world and what could or maybe should be different. Okay, I hope you give it your time. Here's Maribon Night and serial productions with the first episode of The Kids of Rutherford County. You can find the full four-part series wherever you get your podcasts. Or if you're a subscriber in the New York Times audio app.


It was a March afternoon in Rutherford County, Tennessee, a growing community about 30 miles southeast of Nashville. School was out for the day and a dozen or so little kids were playing a game of pick up basketball in someone's backyard. Then as kids do, one said something about another kid's mom. This insult led to some shoving. Then as kids also do, one of them pulled out a cell phone and started filming. Look at.




Away. There's some heavy neon filter over the whole video, so it's hard to make out any faces. But here's what you can see. An eight-year-old boy, hands shoved into the pockets of his oversized parca, is trying to walk away from everyone when a smaller boy, about five or six, runs up behind him and smacks him in the back a few times. Then another little kid runs up and takes his turn, throws a couple of feeble punches to the back of the kid walking away. Some of the older boys are agging them on. Meantime, off camera, you can hear one girl try to break it up. Other kids just stand around watching, and a few of them are also filming on their phones. And then the video just ends. It's the type of fight that barely seems worth posting online, but that happened anyway. And soon the video started to make the rounds, spreading from the kids to teachers and eventually to one police officer. It's what happened next once this officer got involved that the story really begins. Because it's what caught everyone's attention to what's been happening to kids in Ruthford County. It's what caught mine.


From Serial Productions and the New York Times, I'm Maribon Knight. This is The Kids of Ruthford County. Episode one, the egregious video. A few weeks after the fight, Alexia Martin got a call from a police officer named Crystal Templeton.


She said that my kids was on a video instigating a fight. She was like, it was bullying, and she would like to talk to them and that they wouldn't be in no type of trouble. I made plans to meet Mrs. Templeton.


Later that day, Alexia and her 10-year-old daughter, Imaria, drove to meet Officer Templeton on a side street.


When I got there, Ms. Templeton shows me the video, and I was like, Well, that's not my kids. That's bullying. She was like, Well, I want to talk to the other kids and let them know what they're doing is not right. No one is in trouble. I was like, Well, okay. She said, Can you identify your kids? I said, Yes, I can. I said, That's my daughter is the one who's saying stop to Tate. That's my son over there. He's in the video, but he wasn't saying nothing, instigating nothing. She said, Who are the rest of the other kids? My daughter, she wrote down all the kids' names, and we gave them to her.


The whole thing seemed very casual. Alexia doesn't remember Officer Templeton even telling her that she was conducting an investigation. When Imaria, Alexia's daughter, leaned over the hood of the police car and wrote down the names of the kids in the video, she had no idea that what she was doing would lead to 11 kids, including herself, getting arrested. The reason why Officer Templeton was trying to ID all the kids in the video is because she believed all of them bore some responsibility for the fight, or at least for not stopping it. The two kids doing the actual hitting, she thought they were probably too young to bring charges against. They look like they were about five or six years old. In Ruthford County, they generally didn't charge kids under seven. But what about the other kids? The kids standing around, the kids egging it on? Officer Templeton wondered if there was a charge that would apply to all of them. Relying on the memory of a 10-year-old, Officer Templeton took the list of names given to her by Maria and headed to the county's Judicial Commissioner's office for guidance and what to charge them all with.


In Rutherford County, judicial commissioners are the people who approve charges. At their office, the commissioners searched the state's database, and they found a statue that seemed to fit the bill, criminal responsibility for conduct of another. Officer Templeton would later say, I looked at the charge to the best of my ability from my experience was like, Yeah, that's the charge. The judicial commissioner signed off, petitions were secured. Word went out, arrest these kids. As would later be documented in over a dozen interviews with internal affairs investigators, the arrest did not go smoothly.


We'll go ahead and start with May 27th, 2016. It is 11:00 AM. Sergeant Craig Snyder, Office of Professional Responsibility.


In an office at the local police department, Tammy Garrett, the principal at a school called Hobgood Elementary, sat down with two of those investigators.


When did you become aware of the arrest that were going to take place at Hobgood at your school?


The investigation or the arrest?


Well, the investigation. Okay. We're going to try to go on.


Principal Garrett told the investigators that Officer Templeton had shown her the video of the fight on a Wednesday. And by Friday morning, Templeton called to say the police were coming to Hobgood to arrest some girls who were in the video. But right away, Principal Garrett was concerned, partly because the kids Templeton named. Well, Garrett hadn't seen all of them in the video.


There were kids that I knew that I didn't see in there.




Are good kids at school that I started thinking, What's going on? Yeah, what's going on? I didn't see any of those kids. Did she mention how she had identified those kids? She had talked to some kids and the parents, is what she said. I thought, Well, she's an investigator, not me. Maybe things I didn't- I know.


Still, Principal Garrett was worried. It was her fourth year as principal at Hopkins Elementary, and she'd spent those years working hard to build trust with parents and the kids at her school. She thought it certainly wouldn't help that relationship if she was allowing police to come to the school and arrest kids. But she believed she didn't have a choice in the matter. Principal Garrett said Officer Templeton assured her the arrest wouldn't be disruptive.


She said, I want to promise you all that they weren't going to be handcuffed and that I'll be there. I'm going to take care of this. It would be discreet.


Garrett told Templeton her preference was that the girls be arrested before school let out. She didn't want a bunch of students in the hallways, or the yard, or in the bus lines, seeing their classmates get taken out by police officers. But as the day wore on, getting closer to school dismissal at 2:30, Officer Templeton still hadn't shown up at Hopkins. Instead, three different police officers came. That's when things got confusing. Crowded into the assistant principal's office discussing what to do next, Garrett said one officer in a tactical vest was telling her, Go get the kids. But a second officer was telling her, Don't go get the kids. That officer seemed to be having second thoughts about the whole thing.


He kept telling me, Hey, this is not right. I don't think this is right.


Was he specific with anything? He said.


This is going to blow up. This is going to blow up. You shouldn't do this. This is not right.


Meaning the arrest?


. And I don't know what to do.


The officer telling Principal Garrett not to go get the kids was Chris Williams. In his internal affairs interview, Officer Williams said when he learned what these arrests were about, he was shocked.


It was like, what in the world?


He was like, what in the world? Because he'd seen the video of the fight the night before after Officer Templeton had asked him to check it out. And he remembered when he watched it. I was like.


That's the egregious video that you were talking about? And she was like, yeah. I'm like, but if you follow any group of kids, they get off the bus home. This is what you're going to see. This is normal behavior for most kids.


Then there was this. All the kids in the video were black, and most of the students at Hopgood were black or Latino. Williams, who's also black, said he didn't think Templeton, who's white, was intentionally going after these kids because of their race. But he also said he couldn't help but wonder if something like this would happen at a school that was mostly white. Back in the assistant principal's office, Williams started calling up the chain of command, if not to stop the arrests, at least to slow things down while they got some clarity on the situation.


I'm trying to call someone to, I don't want to say, use common sense, but at least think about what we're doing.


The first person Williams talked to was a sergeant who told him to go forward with the arrests. He then called others to try to get a different answer. He called a lieutenant who didn't pick up. Then he got through to a major who essentially told him to just figure it out. Meanwhile, the officer in the room telling Garrett to, Yes, go get the kids, was Officer Jeff Carroll, and he was making his own phone calls. Carroll was a patrol officer and a SWAT team member. He declined my interview requests, but in his internal affairs interview, he said, Well, quote, nobody likes to arrest kids at school. He had his orders.


I have one. Our Sergeant tells me to do something as long as I know it's not illegal or, in my eyes, immoral, I'm going to do it. So who finally said, go get the kids?




What made you listen to Carol at that point? You said they were saying, don't do, don't do.


Because he was probably the more aggressive one. So I went to get them.


Principal Garrett got three girls from their classrooms: an 11-year-old, a 10-year-old, and an eight-year-old. As I.


Came up with the hall with the girls, I was trying to prepare them. I said, hey, guys, the police are here. Regarding the video, you're going to have to come to the office with me. Well, the oldest one was telling me, Hey, these other two weren't even there. From my me seeing the video, I didn't see them in the video, so I thought maybe she had a pretty legitimate claim. I don't.


Know if that's right. You said.


This was in the hallway? Yeah, as we were walking down the hall. She was like, Doctor G, they weren't even there. They weren't even there.


One of the girls even had an alibi. She'd been at a pizza party with her basketball team the day of the fight. As Garrett walked the girls into the office, she turned to the cops and said.


These two weren't even there. Then Officer Carroll got very aggressive with me, and he was like right here in my face, and he pulled out the cuffs and he said, We're going now. We're going now. There's no more talking. We're going now. I said, But they said they weren't even there. He said three times really loud, and he had the handcuffs right in my face, and he was screaming at me. But I was scared, and I didn't want to go to jail, and so I backed off. But I was crying, and the kids were crying, and they were screaming and reaching for me. It was awful.


The other officers in the room don't recall screaming or yelling or Officer Carroll being particularly aggressive, but they do confirm kids were crying and emotions were running high. Principal Garrett then told the police that one of the little girls had diabetes and got treatment when she got home from school. Carroll got on the phone with his sergeant, who told him that the girl could sit tight in the nurse's office for now. But the other two girls needed to be arrested. Officer Carroll then turned to those two girls.


I told him, Honey, something's come up. We have to take you all down to the juvenile detention center. But don't worry, your mom and dad is going to be able to pick you up as soon as we get down there. Of course, they started crying.


The juvenile detention center, jail, basically, one of the largest in the state, a two-tiered jail with dozens of surveillance cameras, 48 cells, and 64 beds. In contrary to what Officer Carroll suggested to the girls, kids who get arrested don't always get picked up by their mom and dad as soon as they get there. Instead, according to the standard procedure, they can be booked, meaning jail staff record their names and birthdates, do a 16-point search, and then place them in a holding area. Inside the school office, Officer Carol handcuffed the 11-year-old, and she dropped to her knees. A third officer handcuffed the eight-year-old. Though once they got to the parking lot, he took the handcuffs off because he later said, he quote, Didn't really think she was a risk or anything. Back in the office, Principal Garrett suddenly realized she forgot to get the last girl on Templeton's list.


Because when I came in with those other three and it went crazy with the yelling and stuff, I realized I never went and got the kid that was in the bus.


The kid on the bus was 10-year-old Emeriae. Not only was she the one who wrote down the names for Officer Templeton just the day before. But she was also the one in the video saying, Stop. Stop, Tate. And yet Garrett was still being told to get her.


I said, She's on the bus by now. They said, Go get her. I had already that time, the man had already yelled at me. I was already crying. They made me go out there crying in front of all my bus students and get her off the bus.


I was on my way home. I had to go out of school on the way home.


This is Emeriae.


But Ms. Gear, she came to get me and she had tears in her eyes. And when she was there, and you were talking about the police, that's when I broke down and that's when I shut everything out. I was scared. I didn't know what was going to happen. I was scared of the jail. It was just a lot. And I was just trying to figure out what's going on, why is this happening? What am I getting picked up for?


So my sister called me and told me I needed to get to the school because they was trying to take my daughter to the detention. And I said, okay, I'm on my way.


This again is Alexia, Imaria's mom.


When I got there, it was some police officers there that had my daughter. She was crying, upset, throwing up everywhere. The police officers told me that they had to take them downtown. They had to take her to the juvenile detention. I was like, You got to take her to juvenile detention. They haven't done nothing. They was like, Well, this is out of our hands. You got kids crying and don't want to go to the detention, don't know what they're going to the detention, and you got to hand your kids over. To some strangers.


In total, 11 kids from across the county were brought to the juvenile detention center over that video. One of them by mistake, so she was released immediately. But the other 10 kids were processed. When Imeria was taken to the detention center, jail staff recorded her name and birthdate, searched her, confiscated her jewelry, all her small rings, and then placed her in a holding area.


I just remember being in a cold and hearing the sound of the buzzers go off and the doors open and shutting, and I was scared.


Emeria and five others got to go home the day they were arrested. But four boys, two 10-year-olds, an 11-year-old, and a 12-year-old, they were kept in jail overnight. Two of them were held all weekend. One of the boys told me about how he was forced to shower in front of a guard and then given a jumpsuit and put in a cell alone, which was all standard procedure for kids put in detention in Ruthford County. During waking hours, the kids aren't allowed to sleep. I spoke to many people who told me that if they did fall asleep or if they were caught lying down, the guard would bang on the cell door to wake them up or force them to stand in the corner of their cell for long periods of time. 10, 11, 12-year-olds are kids who play Freestag at recess. They still snuggle on the couch with their parents and hold their hands when they get scared. In other words, these were kids. More about what happened once the rest of the county and the world got wind of the arrests after the break. By the time the last kid was booked into the juvenile detention center, the news about the arrests had gotten out.


A bunch of little kids arrested, some at school with handcuffs. People were pissed.


Outrages spreading through one Tennessee.


Community after five children.


Were- Even 100 parents met at First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro over the weekend, demanding answers.


It was injustice.


To these kids.


It was.


Injustice to.


The family. I'm angry. The shock spread beyond just Ruthford County. Stories about the arrest appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Mail. Fueling the outrage, it turned out that the charge brought against the kids, criminal responsibility for conduct of another. It's not actually a charge. It's a little technical, but criminal responsibility is a legal theory, one that was misunderstood by both Officer Templeton, who launched the investigation, and the judicial commissioners who approved the charges. The cases against the kids were later all dismissed. Soon after the arrests, the chief of police called for a thorough investigation to get to the bottom of what happened. Of the 20 people interviewed, investigators spent the most time with Officer Templeton.


So what we'll do is I'll first start with having you start at the beginning, wherever you think the beginning is at. Okay.


Well, as my report says, on 4/13 at approximately 10 o'clock, a teacher showed me a.


Video- Officer Templeton declined to speak with me, but she spoke to internal affairs investigators for almost seven hours. And in those interviews, she talked about what she saw when she first watched the video of the fight.


The group's pushing these two little kids to assault this other child. It was the whole group, and they're basically all doing the same thing. At some point, someone could have went and got an adult. I'm not saying jump in and physically stop the fight, but they could have went and got an adult. No one did anything.


So you felt obligated to try and arrest as many of those kids as possible?


I did not feel obligated at that point to arrest anyone. I felt obligated to investigate it if the Detective Division wasn't going to.




For much of this interview, the tone of Craig Sny, the lead investigator, is what I describe as perplexed over how arrests this unusual could happen in the first place. But to Officer Templeton, she seems to think the arrests were all pretty straightforward. In her view, she was just doing her job.


There's an assault here. There's a victim here. Juvenile court is about rehabilitation, and I felt like I needed to do something to help these kids. If I can get them in front of the judge, maybe she can put some services in the home, I don't know, whatever. It's about rehabilitation.


Did anybody at any point... Did anybody at any point need supervisor? Didy any of them at any point tell you, No, you're not going to do this? No.


No one ever said, No. No one ever said, Leave it alone. No one ever said to me that. They knew why I was doing what I was doing. So if somebody told me no, stop, I would have stopped.


So you wouldn't change the way you did any of this?


Having the knowledge that I have today, knowing that all of this has turned into this? Yes, I would.


By this, I assume Officer Templeton is referring to many things: the public relations disaster that had played out on the local news, the fact that it turns out the kids were arrested on a charge that doesn't even exist, and that she's probably definitely getting in trouble for this entire fiasco, which she later did, a three-day suspension. But even still, Templeton tells the investigators.


If we reverse taking away all of the knowledge that I've learned the last six weeks, I would do it the same way I did it.


This is one of the most striking things I came across in my reporting. The difference in perception between those on the outside of this juvenile system and those on the inside. To the general public, arresting a bunch of children and throwing them in jail for watching a fight seemed, among other things, way out of line. But to many insiders like Officer Templeton or the sergeant who backed her up, the arrest made sense. Same for the judicial commissioners, even the juvenile judge. Her response to the arrest was, quote, We are in a crisis with our children in Ruthford County. I've never seen it this bad. It's hard to change a system when the insiders running that system don't see a problem with it. But there definitely was a problem. In the years leading up to the arrests at Hopkins Elementary, Ruthiford County's own data showed that it was jailing a staggering number of kids. The county had been warned about it, actually. Years before, a consultant had told county officials that they were jailing kids at more than three times the state average. Still, nothing changed. In fact, the numbers just kept going up, which meant for the kids of Ruthiford County, getting sent to juvenile detention was almost a rite of passage, a normal part of childhood.


In many cases, what it also was was illegal. This is a story of how that system came to be, how it came to be built, and how it came to be accepted, lauded even. It's also the story of the two insiders, former juvenile delinquents themselves, who actually did see the problem in Ruthford County, what it was doing to kids. They just needed other people to see it, too. That's next time on The Kids of Ruthford County. The Kids of Ruthford County is a coproduction of serial productions, The New York Times, ProPublica, and Nashville Public Radio. It was reported by me, Maribon Knight, with additional reporting from Ken Armstrong. The show was produced by Daniel Guimet, with additional production by Michelle Navarow, editing from Julie Snyder and Jen Gwera, along with Sarah Blue Stane and Ken Armstrong at Pro Publica, and my colleague, Tony Gonzalez, at Nashville Public Radio. Additional editing from Anita Batajow and Alex Kowlowitz. The supervising producer for serial productions is Enday Cheubu. Research and fact-checking by Ben Phalen, with additional fact-checking by Naomi Sharp, sound design, music supervision, and mixing by Phoebe Wang. The original score for our show is from The Blasting Company.


Susan Westling is our standards editor and legal review from Dana Green, Alamin Sumar, and Simone Prakus. The art for our show comes from Pablo Delcon. Additionals final production from Janel Peifer. Mac Miller is the executive assistant for serial. Sam Dolnik is the deputy managing editor of The New York Times. Special thanks to the folks at Pro Publica, including Stephen Engelberg, Charles Ornstein, Susan Carroll, Alex Meyer-Jesky, and Hannah Freshkys. And at Nashville Public Radio, thanks to Emily Siner. The Kids of Ruthiford County is produced by serial productions, The New York Times, ProPublica, and Nashville Public Radio.