NASHVILLE – The juvenile detention center where 30 teens escaped under a fence has a long history of violence, allegations of sexual abuse and previous efforts to break out.
All but seven of the teens from the Woodland Hills Youth Development Center were taken back into custody by Tuesday, a day after they escaped. Officials said they had kicked out metal panels under the windows in common areas of their dorms to reach the courtyard and slipped out under a weak spot in the perimeter fence late Monday night.
The facility was the site of a previous breakout attempt in 2004 in which more than a dozen teens armed with broom handles and hurling bricks injured 16 staffers before they were dispersed by police in riot gear. In May, one staff member was injured when a half-dozen students got into the courtyard, but never made it any farther.
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice ranked Woodland Hills as 13th in the country among juvenile facilities where there had been reports of sexual abuse by staffers.
The facility saw a spike in assaults in 2012 after the state placed older teenagers there from a shuttered facility in eastern Tennessee. Between July and September of that year, police had to be called at least 47 times for assistance, which surpassed total police visits for the previous two years combined.
Among the acts of violence listed in police records is that of a guard trapped in a headlock who is repeatedly punched by a young man. Another assault involved a staff member who was ambushed by four youths and beaten until he was rescued by colleagues.
In the most recent event, the teens — ages 14 to 19 — left their rooms about 11 p.m. Monday night and gathered in common areas. With just 16 unarmed adults to keep watch over 78 youths in 12 dormitories, the staff was "overwhelmed," said Tennessee Department of Children's Services spokesman Rob Johnson.
Police caught up with some of the teens walking along roads or coming out of the woods. Some turned themselves in. And some were swiftly returned to the detention center by their own families for their own good.
"He broke loose, he was gone, but he's back now," said LaWanda Knowles, whose nephew joined the escape. "I just want to know that he's here safely and he's OK — I don't want the police jumping on him, nobody beating on him or nothing."
The fence is buried 8 inches deep in the ground, but the teens found a spot where they could slip out underneath it. There are no guard towers or barbed wire at the facility.
None of the staff were hurt, and initially they simply called other staffers for backup to help bring the teens back into the dormitories. Once they spotted the teens escaping the perimeter fence, they alerted police and the Tennessee Highway Patrol joined the search.
While juvenile records are sealed, police released the names and mug shots of the remaining fugitives, all of whom are 17 or 18 years old. None are convicted killers, said Melvin Whitlow, the facility's superintendent.
Knowles said police had come searching for her nephew about 5 a.m. at his home, about 8 miles from the facility. The teen showed up about two hours later, and briefly saw his parents and family, she said.
"He wanted to see his mom, and nieces and nephews and his sisters, so he came home," she said. "But when we found out that he ran, I jumped in my truck and put him in there and brought him back."
Once back in custody, the teens who escaped were being taken to juvenile court to face potential escape charges, officials said.
Most of the 78 juvenile delinquents held at the center Monday night had committed at least three felonies, Johnson said.
The teens stay in single rooms that, for their own security, are locked on the outside, so that only those with keys can enter. But they can push their room doors open if they need to.
The center has a school, offers vocational training and career counseling, and works to move teens to less restrictive settings, according to a state website. It holds them until their 19th birthdays. All have been charged as juveniles, not adults.
The fence was fixed and the center was calm and back under control by Tuesday morning, Johnson said.
(Associated Press writer Travis Loller contributed to this report.)