Tennessee Juvenile Justice System Lawsuit

Case Name: Disability Rights Tennessee, et al. v. The State of Tennessee, et al.

Case Type: Public Interest Litigation

Filed in: U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee

Docket: Case No.: 3:24-cv-00777

Case Summary

On June 26, 2024, Sanford Heisler Sharp, with Disability Rights Tennessee and Youth Law Center, filed a class action lawsuit against the State of Tennessee, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (“DCS”), and the commissioners of the Tennessee Department of Education and DCS, alleging that Tennessee’s juvenile justice system subjects children and young people with disabilities to pervasive violence, abuse, and neglect. Disability Rights Tennessee serves in the case both as counsel and as an organizational plaintiff. The organization is joined by individual plaintiffs John Doe 1, John Doe 2, and Jane Doe 1, all of whom are youth currently or formerly in DCS custody.

Rather than providing disabled youth with the treatment they need, the Complaint alleges that Tennessee’s juvenile justice system warehouses youth in prisons and subjects them to barbaric violence and abuse—including staff members beating children and bribing youth to attack one another, pepper spray, and prolonged solitary confinement. According to the complaint, the Defendants resort to such abuses instead of providing evidence-based assessment, education, healthcare, and other rehabilitative services.

According to the complaint, children with disabilities are over-represented in the juvenile justice system. Nationwide, between sixty-five and eighty-five percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have disabilities. Yet, the complaint says, Defendants fail to screen youth in their custody for disabilities, provide reasonable accommodations, or offer appropriate treatment, and instead punish youth for their disabilities.

Additionally, the Defendants provide woefully inadequate education to youth in their custody. The complaint alleges that Defendants often deny youth any education for as long as twenty days after entering a facility, fail to provide even the bare minimum four hours of daily instruction required under state regulations, and fail to provide education to youth trapped in solitary confinement.

These systemic abuses have exacted an acute toll on the individual plaintiffs. John Doe 1, a 17-year-old, was beaten over thirty-times while in custody and suffered black eyes, a bruised jaw and ribs, and ruptured blood vessels in his eyes. John Doe 2, a 12-year-old-boy who was shipped between at least five different facilities in two years, experienced worsening mental health issues in Defendants’ custody and began hearing “a scary voice in his head telling him to do things.” Jane Doe 1, a 15-year-old, was shackled and dragged across the floor by facility staff, placed in solitary confinement, and on another occasion, pepper sprayed by staff while she was naked in her cell.   

The lawsuit alleges violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and seeks injunctive relief requiring Tennessee to provide the youth with the treatment they need rather than incarcerating and abusing them.  

Procedural History

News Coverage