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Police Arrest Tennessee Elementary School Students Over Off-Campus Fight


Parents in an elementary school outside Nashville, Tenn., want an explanation. They've waited two weeks to hear why police decided to pull a handful of children from their classrooms, lead some out in handcuffs and take them away in squad cars. The apparent charge - not intervening in a neighborhood fight. This might sound like the beginning of yet another conflict between police and minority communities. But as Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports, that hasn't happened yet.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: It was a confusing and emotional scene for Zacchaeus Crawford of Murfreesboro, Tenn. He rushed from work to Hobgood Elementary after getting a call that his daughters were being arrested, along with 10 students as young as 6 years old.

ZACCHAEUS CRAWFORD: And my wife is boo-hooing. She's crying. Both of the cops are crying. So everyone's crying. My daughter's crying because we don't understand why they're fixing to put these kids in this cop car.

FARMER: Apparently, police believe three of Crawford's kids were bystanders during a scuffle that was caught on a cell phone camera.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: No, no. Let T.T. beat him.

FARMER: Parents say their children were charged for what they didn't do. Police haven't confirmed, citing privacy rules surrounding juveniles. They also say at least one child is part of a larger criminal case. The police chief declined my request for an interview, but he has apologized for the way the arrests were handled and promised to report, due out Monday. Zacchaeus Crawford says he just wants his kids cleared.

CRAWFORD: In anything that comes after that, I mean - that's a whole entire separate situation. I don't intend to do anything drastic.

FARMER: Friends have encouraged him to file a lawsuit or at least show some rage. Crawford doesn't see the point. He does feel some injustice. Would this have happened in a more affluent area with mostly white students?

CRAWFORD: Hey, all I know is that this didn't happen in any other schools but the ones that are here. And you tell me how you would feel if this happened in your neighborhood.


BRENDA GILMORE: We want to trust the police department, but enough is enough.

FARMER: African-American lawmakers like State Rep. Brenda Gilmore have piped up. Some want a federal probe. But instead of calling for police resignations, they're making demands like sensitivity training.


GILMORE: Where they learn how to work with people of color so that this type of policing is stopped immediately.

FARMER: Murfreesboro is a booming suburb and growing more diverse. This is the town that was in the national spotlight a few years ago when some protested construction of a large mosque. For African-Americans, there's been some racial friction with law enforcement. Still, Pastor James McCarroll has encouraged civility.

JAMES MCCARROLL: Instead of us going out and rioting or going out marching and burning down buildings - which truly have never proven to be the most effective means to promote policy change nor direct change - we would rather do things that have a long-lasting effect.

FARMER: Police have assembled a group of black ministers, including McCarroll, to review the case. But the handcuffing of schoolchildren has left an impression.

SAVITRI MATTHEWS: Make sure you watch the cars, please.

FARMER: Savitri Matthews warns her daughter who pedals her bike around their apartment complex. Like many students at Hobgood, Matthews says her fifth grader didn't know what happened in her own school until it made news.

MATTHEWS: I'm glad she didn't see it because now she's asking me those questions. Will the police come and arrest me? The kids should know that that's just not something that's just standard.

FARMER: Matthews says she's sympathetic, even supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement. She talks about how cops have hassled her son who's away at college. She hopes the arrest of these elementary students don't get swept up into the national debate.

MATTHEWS: You know, sometimes people just might make a hasty decision, and I really think that's what happened.

FARMER: Everybody has to understand one thing, she says, police officers are human, too. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Blake Farmer
Blake Farmer is WPLN's assistant news director, but he wears many hats - reporter, editor and host. He covers the Tennessee state capitol while also keeping an eye on Fort Campbell and business trends, frequently contributing to national programs. Born in Tennessee and educated in Texas, Blake has called Nashville home for most of his life.