Journalist Meribah Knight moved to Tennessee in 2016, one month before police officers arrested four Black girls at an elementary school in Murfreesboro, a small city outside of Nashville. Two of the girls, the youngest just 8 years old, were handcuffed. All four, along with 7 other kids arrested in the days after, were accused of watching young boys scuffle and not stepping in to stop it.
Knight was working on other stories, but this one stuck with her. She wanted to know more. She began working for Nashville Public Radio in the fall of 2016.
Knight published the results of her investigation, in partnership with ProPublica’s Ken Armstrong and the Local Reporting Network, a program that gave her a year to dig.
Knight’s hunch was right: There was so much more to this story.
One year and more than 50 Freedom of Information Act requests later, the reporters were able to see beyond the story’s outlines to the systemic issues that allowed those arrests, and subsequent jailings, to happen. The children, they reported, were arrested for a crime that does not exist, in an investigation led by a police officer who had been disciplined 37 times, on charges approved by judicial commissioners without law degrees, in a system overseen by a judge who failed the bar exam four times, in a county where the policy for detaining kids violated Tennessee law but escaped the notice of state inspectors year after year.
The reporters also discovered that in Rutherford County, the norm, by order of the judge, was to arrest kids rather than issue a citation with a court date, which would allow them to go home. The county’s juvenile justice system jailed kids in 48% of the cases referred to juvenile court—compared with the statewide average of 5%. And county commissioners made light of children in cells, likening the jail to a hotel (“with breakfast provided, and it’s not a continental”) while saying it would be “cool” if the juvenile detention center could be a “profit center.” Many children were held there in solitary confinement.
A subsequent story, co-reported with ProPublica’s deputy data editor Hannah Fresques, answered a question many readers had: The county was jailing a disproportionately high percentage of Black children. And while the racial gap nationally is narrowing, in Rutherford County it has been getting worse.
The Rutherford County judge largely responsible for these outcomes says kids must face consequences. But her dictum seemed rarely to apply to the adults in charge. In 2017, a federal court found that the county was illegally jailing kids; and this year, the county settled a class-action lawsuit for about $6 million. But while the juvenile court judge announced her retirement, the jail’s director still holds her position and the county’s juvenile justice system continues to grow. And despite the attention to the systemic problems with this county’s system, the holes in government oversight that allowed Rutherford County to escape accountability for so long were not closed.
This project is why many of us entered the field. Its revelations and its impact show the good that journalists can do when we give voice to the voiceless and hold power to account.