Cleaveland: Taft Youth Center deserves to stay open

Cleaveland: Taft Youth Center deserves to stay open

February 23rd, 2012 Cliff Cleveland in Life Entertainment

The Taft Youth Center is located north of Pikeville, Tenn.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

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 cleaveland1000@comcast.net.