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Teenagers spray a fire extinguisher at the Woodland Hills Youth Development Center in Nashville early Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014.

NASHVILLE - A top official said Monday that Tennessee is "changing the culture" at its three state-operated youth development centers, including a Nashville facility where teen felons rioted, assaulted staff and staged two mass escapes in September.

Children's Services Commissioner Jim Henry said the new "learning and mentor system" will reward good behavior with increased privileges, more focus on education and smaller staff-to-resident ratios.

The list includes dinners more appealing to teens, computer games and later bed times for troubled kids who behave as well as improved therapeutic services.

But there's some tough love here, too, Henry told Gov. Bill Haslam during his budget presentation: the state is asking a court to alter a 40-year-old agreement and obtain permission to use 144 locks on rooms at night as well as the ability to use pepper spray for trouble makers. And the state is shipping 12 of the worst to Texas.

"We want to get into a system where we reward people for good behavior, not just hold them," Henry told reporters after his presentation. "We've been doing some good work over the last 20 years in [youth development centers] and a lot of kids have gone on to do better things."

But, Henry added, "this represents a new time, new services and we think this is going to be very successful."

At the same time, the state plans to continue privatizing custody-services for trouble youths.

As part of that, the department intends to whack $7.78 million out of the operations budget for the troubled state-run Woodland Hills Youth Development Center in Nashville - the one rocked by riots - as well the John S. Wilder facility in West Tennessee and the Mountain View facility in Northeast Tennessee.

About 280 males are housed at the three centers.

Some $5.2 million of the savings will migrate over to privately run facilities for residential services, Henry said.

Meanwhile, the department plans to cut 90 positions. It's unclear just how many of those are filled. But at the same time, the department intends to improve the ratio of guards to residents, going from one per 16 teens to a 1-to-12 ratio.

The department, which also provides children welfare, adoption and other services, has been engulfed in recent years by a series of controversies, ranging from unexplained deaths of children in state custody to lag times of investigations into abuse.

Henry, a former state legislator, was brought in to change things. But even as things were on the mend in previous problem areas, the department was hit with issues at Woodland Hills, which made international news.

The commissioner said there were a number of problems at Woodland Hills, including the inability of the state to keep teen felons locked in their rooms at night and utilize pepper spray when they violently erupt.

Henry said the state has now been granted permission to lock teens in their rooms during emergencies. But he said it's important that doors be locked at night. That will provide a safe space for teens from would-be trouble makers, Henry said.

The goal is "changing culture," getting the teens GEDs, and keeping consistent staffing and therapeutic services such as counseling, Henry said.

Earlier Monday, officials with the state departments of human services, health, tourism, and mental health and substance abuse services made their own budget presentations to Haslam.

Haslam in August directed all departments to draw up plans for 7 percent budget cuts. But he continued to emphasize on Monday that he hopes he won't have to make such drastic cuts on top of years of reductions.

Human Services Commissioner Rachel Hatter says she will have abolished more than 730 positions between last year's budget by the time the new 2015-2016 budget goes into effect July 1.

The agency oversees social services such as welfare and food stamps. She provided no exact figures on how many of the positions are actually filled, but Hatter said many of the positions are no longer needed with the department no longer providing screening for TennCare applicants.

"We've asked every department for a 7 percent cut," Haslam said. "That doesn't mean that will happen. We're obviously evaluating [that] in conjunctions with [tax] revenue that comes in as well as what we think the impact of those cuts will be."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

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