published Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

Cleaveland: Taft Youth Center deserves to stay open

Cliff Cleveland
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    The Taft Youth Center is located north of Pikeville, Tenn.
    Photo by Jake Daniels.
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The Taft Youth Development Center in Bledsoe County deserves modernization and continued operation. The center is a vital teaching and rehabilitation enterprise for boys who have committed violent or repeated crimes.

Tennessee's Department of Children's Services, with a push from Gov. Bill Haslam, has proposed closing the center, citing the need to reduce expenditures and consolidate students across the other three facilities operated for teenage males. DCS argues that the move would utilize capacity at other centers and reduce per diem expenditures for boys in the system.

Fifteen miles to the west of Pikeville, Taft has operated in various forms for almost a century. At present, Taft houses 86 of the most challenging young males in the juvenile justice system. The first impression upon driving onto the site is the height of the steel-mesh fences, turned inward at the top and crowned with razor wire. The aged, gray buildings sit in a peaceful valley at the end of a road.

On a Friday afternoon, the interior of the academic building was a hive of respectful activity. Classes adjourned under the watchful eye of the school's principal. Students moved quietly along a hallway featuring signs emphasizing positive character traits. Students emerged from classes in English, math, and history. An array of computers allowed students in math to self-pace in a curriculum suited to their needs.

In the gym, young men, many with a background of violence, competed in a spirited pick-up basketball game under the watchful eye of a coach and security personnel. A student worked out on a weight-machine. A counselor spoke quietly with a boy seated in the bleachers.

These looked like average teenage boys who gather every day on countless playgrounds across America.

Every activity at Taft proceeds in a context of moral instruction, respect for one another, and peaceful resolution of conflicts. Every staff member, whatever his or her job description, fills multiple roles as mentor, teacher, counselor, and dependable adult.

For some boys, civil behavior comes hard. They may be remanded to a special unit on-site for violent offenders where they must earn their way back into the larger society governed by laws.

Although some students are assigned to a center far from their hometown to avoid malignant influences, many boys come from surrounding counties, including Hamilton County. Proximity to their hometowns allows more frequent contact with family, judges, social workers, and community volunteers who can assist in their return to society. If Taft should close, supporters of a boy would be faced with a two to three hour drive to the next closest center.

The staff of Taft is a multi-disciplinary unit with many years of experience working with troubled boys and with each other. Closing Taft breaks up a team that has taken years to assemble. They are a treasure. The notion that they could find equivalent work at a new county, correctional institution is simply wrong.

Taft needs work on its structure. Despite its age and foreboding appearance, Taft has been fully accredited by the American Correctional Association, and has met fire and safety requirements. The space within its enclosure offers prospects for additional outdoor activities and vocational training such as in agriculture and building trades.

From prior experiences, I believe that troubled people can more effectively be helped when they are managed in smaller groupings. At Taft, staff knew their charges by name and by special needs. In a smaller group there is less chance that a boy can be overlooked or bullied.

How much is the life of a boy worth? That is the fundamental issue. Our state should not seek lower taxes at the expense of young men whose lives, and the lives of their families here and to come, depend upon the last chance they may ever have to turn their lives around.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at

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outthere said...

We've been doing this same thing for at least 30 years. We are here to make a difference for the lives of the kids we serve. Evidently the Governor's agenda is to "save money" at the expense of of our young men. These kids need the education and vocational training in order to be productive. (you know, be able to get and keep a job) It is evident that it is more important to him to privatize and make money under the table! We NEED the public's help. Please contact your legislator's, make them aware that Taft needs to stay open. NOT just for the employees, but for the KIDS we serve. Their education and their future are depending on it!

February 23, 2012 at 8:34 a.m.
beeninsystem said...
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I went in foster homes when I was 3 I stayed till I was adopted at the age of 14. I didn't want to be adopted by the family. I had been abused most of my life, welfare department wouldn't listen to me. I told them the family wasn't a good family and they had hidden secrets We lived with them for a yr before we went in court for the adoption. When I was 16 I was sent to a Group Home. A yr later the parents were divorced,now my adopted father is in jail. Thank God for the School I was put in. I had a job on and off campus, I started on the basketball, baseball team. I was Editor-n-Chief of the school paper,was on the annual staff. I had a lot of one on one teaching, in English and Math. I graduated Valedictorian. If it had not been for that school I would of ended up like my brother, career criminal. Well that is what Taft is. If these boys don't continue getting the help they will be in jail. Tax payer dollars are going to be paying for the boys for a very long time. So we lose money in the long run. Also they continue sending Taft students other YDC's can't handle. They say they don't, they put on transcripts that they were sent to Taft for VOCATION, but they don't put what vocation they should take. Wait Oday said we have vocation at the other schools, that we wouldn't be losing VOCATION by closing Taft. THEN WHY ARE WE SENDING THEM TO TAFT FOR VOCATION, COULD IT BE BECAUSE OF BEHAVIOR? Wilder would of had a riot the week of Christmas if they hadn't of sent 2 boys to Taft. They will never admit it but it is very true. If not for that reason then why send 2 to Taft during Christmas when Taft had already been proposed to close. Why did Taft get 19 Students from Dec. 1 till Jan. 25th if we were going to be closed and the other YDC's have plenty of room. Look up Woodland Hills in 2004. Read the papers about the girls getting pregnant. Now they want to move them out of New Vision and put them in Private Sectors. Trust me they will also be escaping. Oday said only 1 Unit on Taft uses PEPPER SPRAY. False statement. Every guard has mace, is trained to use mace, and has to be sprayed with mace so they know how it feels. If you ever see a fight between two 18yr old students here it is like a UFC fight. You don't want to go near it. These boys will hurt those 13-16 yr olds at the other YDC's. Again Oday says they will not be mixed. They would have to be in separate schools, separate dorms, separate feeding times. There is no way not to mix them if they close Taft. I really hate to see the opportunities of the Students at Taft and the Students from other YDC's be taken away. Also no news stations from Nashville will get involved with the story. They will be involved when 1 of the younger boys is killed, a staff member is killed, or escapes start happening from New Vision. How much is it going to cost to rebuild New Vision for these harder criminals they want to move there??

February 23, 2012 at 12:18 p.m.
GC said...

Both of your comments above are true. SO SAD for the younger kids at the other facilities to be mixed with the most hard core juveniles in the state. You are also right about the Nashville newspaper - they will pick the story up when someone is badly injured.....guess they will wonder where Taft is then and realize the HUGE mistake that was made. I'm afraid it will be too late.

February 23, 2012 at 8:30 p.m.
pikeville said...

Every word out of Kate O'Day's and Albert Dawson's mouth has been a LIE!! Governor Haslam knows this, and is in support of it. This is all in the name of future earnings in their privitization plan. Check out the reports on about DCS and the state it's in. How many more children has to die before everyone takes David Cook's advise and stands up in civil disobedeince? Wonder how much the silencer that has been put on the Tennessean has cost the taxpayers? They may be staying quiet for the caucusis' sake though?

February 23, 2012 at 11:35 p.m.
lonewolf82 said...

It's nice to see a real news piece on Taft Youth Center from an outside source. Taft has always been unfairly judged by Nashville insiders and no legitimate reason has ever been given as to why. Is it because the employee's at Taft do their jobs better than any other facility or the fact that they have changed the lives of several misguided youth over the years? Who knows, but as a former Taft employee I can say that the people at Taft Youth Center are the most dedicated, hardworking and caring individuals that I have ever met and I don't believe those traits can be found at the other state YDC's. Taft is a needed resource in the fight against youth crimes in Tennessee and it appears that our leaders in Nashville are risking lives to save a couple bucks.

February 29, 2012 at 9:58 p.m.
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