DJJ security left a teacher alone with juveniles and tools despite pleas, attack followed

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Published: Feb. 16, 2023 at 5:32 PM EST
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RICHLAND COUNTY, S.C. (WIS) - This past October a South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) teacher was left alone in a room with juveniles and hammers.

Moments later, the teacher needed to be hospitalized, juveniles were terrorizing the campus with weapons, and the department was reliant on outside help to get its youth under control.

The teacher expressed concerns about his safety less than two weeks before.

In the aftermath of the Oct. 18, 2022 riot at the Broad River Road Complex (BRRC), WIS compiled DJJ records and interviewed DJJ Director Eden Hendrick and the carpentry teacher at the center of the incident- Wes Laws.

The interviews and records show the department’s well-documented staffing shortage and security shortcomings left Laws vulnerable to an attack by the juveniles he was attempting to serve.

The department records show it took more than an hour until all the juveniles were accounted for.

The DJJ has implemented security improvements, and as of Feb. 8, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) has not responded to the department in 2023.

“I am afraid for my life, my safety, and my health”

Laws said he began serving at the Department of Juvenile Justice more than nine years ago and said he gets satisfaction from teaching the juveniles skills which could improve their lives.

“I feel like all my life, God has been preparing me for a job like this. I know it probably sounds kind of crazy, but I have faith in God and I felt like that I had something that I could share with them,” he said.

The conditions at the Broad River Road Complex have come under intense scrutiny in recent years.

In the final months before former DJJ Director Freddie Pough’s Sept. 2021 resignation, the Legislative Audit Council released a searing report on the department’s operations and security, teachers and security staff walked out of the Broad River Road Complex, and a WIS investigation found juveniles living near sewage.

WIS interviewed Laws for the investigation and he asked Governor Henry McMaster to see the conditions at the BRRC.

McMaster’s press office declined multiple interview requests for this story.

The DJJ confirmed McMaster has not been to the complex since Hendrick assumed control of the agency in September 2021 after Pough resigned.

He did visit in 2020 while Pough was still the director.

Laws said Hendrick’s first year had mixed results. He credited her for making changes aimed at improving the conditions at the Broad River Road Complex.

“I’ll have to give it to her. She’s brought in some new personnel, I think she’s trying to put her best foot forward,” he said.

The department has touted its work to strengthen the door system in the juvenile pods, its camera system, communication, and accountability for staffers.

Hendrick has been tasked with navigating a settlement agreement between the DJJ and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), has worked to implement new mental health resources for the youth, and inherited an agency with a crippling staff shortage.

In a Jan. 18 presentation to state lawmakers, Hendrick touted recruitment as significantly improved in recent months (a 103.1% increase in hires over the last year).

She asked the lawmakers for $1.5 million in security upgrades in the coming budget for personnel protection equipment, K-9 officers, body cameras, radio upgrades, and other improvements.

She also cited recruitment and retention as needed when asking for $10 million in recurring funds.

Despite her efforts in the last year, the DJJ was short 81 correctional officers at the Broad River Road Complex as of Jan. 24. That’s a 38.7 percent vacancy.

Laws said juveniles were still posing a threat in the months leading up to the attack.

“You frequently had students that were out of place when they were there. The juveniles would get into fights,” he said.

In June 2022, a juvenile-on-juvenile “mob” attack left two juveniles hospitalized and involved allegations that staff “set up” the incident.

In July 2022, seven juveniles broke into a school building, riffled through offices, climbed onto the roof, and proceeded to throw items off the roof.

Laws said the concern over his safety and well-being had continued.

“You’ve got a group of young people that are coming in here, that they just don’t care. The vast majority of them, it seems like they don’t care.”

He provided WIS with two emails, one from March 23, 2022, and the other from Oct. 6, 2022.

Laws addressed them to DJJ leadership and cc’d other staff.

In the March letter, he warned the department’s school leadership about one of the juveniles he claims attacked him in October.

He wrote:

I do not feel safe having [the youth] participating in CTE Classes or being in the CTE Building after he destroyed Mr. Lee’s door on Monday morning. I fear for the Lives, Safety, and Health of those in the CTE Building. It is my understanding that in the past couple of months [the youth] has assaulted at least 2 of his fellow students and assaulted at least 2 JCOs as well.

He later wrote:

I personally like [the youth] but feel I can no longer trust him. In closing, I feel that destroying an ASSA Door lock is a little more serious than refusing to be strip searched and I would appreciate some resolution in this matter that will be beneficial to all parties concerned.

Twelve days before the attack, he sent the October email. He raised concerns about other juveniles and requested to speak with Hendrick.

He sent the email to school leadership and Hendrick. He wrote:

I am afraid for not just my life, safety, and health but for everyone that is on this campus to include yourself.

In the middle of the email he wrote:

The stress for all of us is becoming unbearable and I am asking for help to stop this madness before someone is killed or seriously injured. From talking with others I am not the only person that feels this way. I have had conversations with my fellow teachers, other staff members, JCOs, the contracted security, and our students. We are all afraid that someone is going to be killed, injured or they are afraid for their safety. Our students are afraid for their lives and safety. They have confided to me that the others are out of control. Our students have told me that the reason is that there are no consequences or repercussions for their actions.

The final paragraph read:

These are my concerns and I am presenting them to you. I am not pointing any fingers or blaming anyone. I am just bringing these recent things to your attention. I know this probably sounds crazy, but I love my job, my coworkers, and our students. The people at DJJ are my family. I know that I can’t just quit because I will be taking this baggage with me. I am requesting to speak with Director Hendrick in regard to this. Thank you for your consideration in this matter.

Hendrick said she reached out to DJJ Superintendent Floyd Lyles after the October email. She said she thinks they met with Laws the next day.

“I didn’t hear anything after that until of course this incident,” she said.

However, she said she has met with Laws in the past and visited his classroom.

After the interview, she sent a statement reading:

After receiving Mr. Law’s October 6th email, Mr. Lyles consulted with me and planned to meet with Mr. Laws along with Deputy Director of Security and Operations the next morning. Mr. Laws was not at school the next morning. When Mr. Laws returned on October 10th, the administration ensured he would have no classes that day. Superintendent Lyles, Principal McLeod, and Vice Principal Washington met with Mr. Laws on the 10th to discuss the situation; provide support, and suggested he reach out to human resources to learn about his options. During that discussion, Mr. Laws identified certain students that he viewed as leaders that he would be comfortable with in his classroom. Youth who were not in school on October 10th were not discussed with Mr. Laws during that meeting.

After the Hendrick interview, Laws confirmed that Lyles contacted him about “coming by” and speaking but didn’t follow up.

“They blew me off man,” he said.

He confirmed he was not at school the day after he sent the email and provided WIS with an email showing Lyles had reached out along with the Deputy Director of Security and Operations.

However, he told WIS he did not recall an Oct. 10 meeting.

WIS has asked the DJJ for records of the meeting.

WIS sent questions to Lyles about the follow-up, but he did not respond. The department sent Hendrick’s statement to address the questions.

“Aye let’s assault staff”: The Oct. 18 riot

Laws described his classroom as a “shop” where hand tools are locked in a storage room and he has the key.

He said most classes last around an hour and he’d work with one to six juveniles at a time.

“Sometimes there is security personnel in [the shop], but most of the time there are not because they’re short-staffed on security,” he said.

He said there was security camera supervision in the shop, but otherwise, he was left to his own defense if the juvenile correctional officer left or wasn’t present to begin with. Department records show a juvenile correctional officer (JCO) left Laws alone in the room with four juveniles the day of the attack.

On the day of the incident, Laws said a juvenile who would go on to attack him arrived at class.

He said he found it odd because the juvenile had been assaulted himself months prior and Laws had also expressed concern about him.

“We had not seen him at the school until, well the first time I saw him was Oct. 18. When he showed up in the classroom, I had already an email requesting that he not come back into my classroom, because I feared for my life, my safety and my health,” he said, appearing to refer to the March email.

Laws said he began handing out instructions and protective equipment to five juveniles, including one female juvenile.

“I gave them this equipment, and then a call came up on the radio for the female [juvenile] to go get her medication,” he said.

WIS used the Freedom of Information Act to get incident reports from that day. The reports on the incident range from 9 a.m. to just after 10 a.m.

The incident report from Juvenile Correctional Officer Penelope Brown (the officer in the room) is from 9:20 a.m. and confirms Laws’ series of events to that point.

She then writes that she had to escort the juvenile to an appointment.

Brown then writes:

When I return back to the hallway Mr. [Laws’] door was close. When I ask the other officers on the hall who close the door they stay juvenile {redacted]. I Brown immediately open the door and posted near it. While standing at the door I, Penelope Brown over heard a loud noise coming from the room that is when I looked and ran in along with BI Bright and Sgt. Howard. I saw the four named boys running out of the rear door with tools in their hands and Mr. Laws on the floor in his tool room.

Laws said he had entered the equipment room and pulled a barricade across the doorway. He said he had seen three juveniles exchange “looks.”

After some back and forth with a juvenile about replacement equipment, he said a juvenile jumped over the barricade and attacked him.

“I was struggling with him and I was thinking, oh my God they’re going to kill me,” he said.

He said he was struggling with two juveniles when he was turned around.

“I felt something hit me in the back, and then, everything, I just, everything in my head exploded. Like I saw little colored lights, stars, whatever,” he said.

The incident reports painted a harrowing picture of what followed.

A sergeant described how an alert call was sent out over the radio in a “terrifying voice.”

Several reports described youth roaming through the campus with hammers and a crowbar, damaging vehicles, breaking windows, jumping into buildings, damaging the property, and terrorizing staff.

Multiple reports stated a youth picked up a concrete block and threw it through a car’s rear window.

A report from a lieutenant reported she saw youth with scissors, table legs with nails, a light fixture, and a hole puncher machine.

Several reports described the youth with weapons appeared to be targeting other youths “in retaliation.”

A supervising captain described seeing two youths hiding with large sticks.

A sergeant reported how one youth said to another four “Aye let’s assault staff.” A Lieutenant writes that she heard “they don’t (sic) have any shields or (sic) anything, so let’s f*** staff up.”

A report from a Youth Service Specialist read that a youth “knocked the windshield of a pickup truck out while staff was still in the vehicle.”

The reports reflect two incidents where staffers successfully talked a juvenile out of getting behind the wheel of a vehicle.

An Assistant Facility Administrator wrote that two youths ran toward a school bus, and jumped on top of the bus “hitting and breaking the window where security staff was located causing the security staff to lose control of the bus.”

Multiple reports describe an order being given to staff to not engage the juveniles due to their aggressive behavior and weapons. Records show the staff repeatedly attempting to tell the youth to stop and directing/escorting the youth and others to safe locations.

A different assistant facility administrator described rushing to his car, driving to pick up two targeted youths with the armed juveniles just feet away.

Multiple records state staff attempted to take the hammers away from the youth, with mixed success.

A report from a telecommunications operator stated 911 was called around 9:39 a.m. and SLED arrived at 10:02 a.m. The headcount of juveniles was made at 10:40 a.m.

The records show as many as 10 juveniles were involved, but it’s unclear how many were armed.

Hendrick said she was off campus at a meeting when the riot began but immediately returned.

She said arrived around the same time as SLED and initially told WIS she was not “allowed” inside by SLED. She later said:

“We made the decision it was probably best for me to stay outside,”

The aftermath for Wes Laws

Laws described his injury as a traumatic brain injury and at times struggled to speak during the interview with WIS.

“I have short-term memory loss, I’ll walk into a room and I’ll take like maybe five or six steps and I will not remember what I went in there to get,” he said.

Laws said he suffers from panic attacks, he stutters, he has dry heaves, he’s averse to crowds, and he has headaches.

“I am not the same person that I was on the morning of October 18th,” he said.

He said Hendrick and the DJJ Superintendent Floyd Lyles spoke with him in the aftermath of the attack, and both exhibited genuine regret and apologies.

Laws said the juvenile should not have entered the classroom, the inability of the department to retain staff posed a security risk, and the failure of the security plan that was in place to protect him put him in harms way.

“If there had been a [juvenile correctional officer] in the classroom that day, I don’t think that they would’ve done what they did. Or maybe they would have, I don’t know,” he said.

He expressed understanding of the difficult position Hendrick and most of the leadership are in as a result of conditions beyond their control but said he is struggling to find forgiveness.

“You have to forgive people for things that they’ve done, that’s what Christ would do,” he said.

Laws said he hasn’t been back to the DJJ since but is still listed as a teacher with the department. He said he doesn’t feel safe going back at this time.

He said he can’t say if he will pursue legal action.

Making the DJJ safer

Hendrick said her first thoughts were hoping that no one was injured.

“In my opinion, we were lucky considering what could have happened, if there were more serious injuries. I was very thankful there was only one injury,” she said.

DJJ records state the department assigned the incident for investigation in November, but Hendrick said the DJJ has not investigated.

She said the department is waiting for SLED to finish its investigation into the youth and staff involved.

“I don’t want to interfere with anything that they’re doing, I don’t want to influence the investigation in any way,” she said.

A spokesperson for SLED said the investigation is active and ongoing.

Despite the lack of DJJ investigation, Hendrick said there have been opportunities to learn from mistakes.

“Maybe not everybody needs to go to shop class. I think that’s something, they need very, I don’t set the school schedules, but that’s something I’m very much encouraging the education people to look at, maybe we need to find an alternative,” she said.

She said Lyles, Principal Kenyatta McLeod, the facility administrator, and security personnel determine where students are placed in the school.

McLeod did not return a request for comment, but the department sent WIS a statement from Hendrick in response to the questions. It read in part:

Student class placement is a collaborative effort between the student, guidance counselors, teachers, school administration, and other agency divisions taking into consideration many factors such as student interest, academic record, special education accommodations, and course availability.

A spokesperson for the department identified the facility administrator at the time of the attack as Elwood Sessions and said he was on leave at the time of the incident “in advance of his retirement.”

The spokesperson said on Oct. 19, the day after the incident, Quiotis Fletcher assumed the role of interim facility administrator and remains in the role.

Hendrick said Laws’ classroom has been shut down because of identified security needs in the area.

WIS asked if leaving a teacher alone in a classroom is policy.

“I don’t think it’s in the policy. I think it all depends on, everything is very depending on the youth that are in the class and the staffing and the ratios of that day,” she said.

She said having an officer in every classroom would be ideal, but staffing limitations keep that from happening. Hendrick said the facility administrator in consultation with the school principal makes decisions on where to put JCOs.

“That’s not something I get involved in on a daily basis, but if I need to I would,” she said.

She said she does not know why more officers weren’t assigned to the classroom in response to Laws’ concerns and the presence of the tools.

“I wish better decisions had been made and I think better decisions will be made in the future, especially concerning the wood chop class, or shop class, whatever you want to call it,” she said.

Additionally, she said the department has to balance safety concerns about certain juveniles with their right to an education.

As to the department’s October response, Hendrick said JCO training does not “apply” when weapons are involved.

To help address that, the department announced a series of “improvement initiatives” in February, including the Rapid Response Team (RRT).

The department’s press release states the RRT is designed to control “non-compliant” behaviors quickly and safely. Its members are subject to fitness testing and enhanced training.

She said the department has eight members of the team already, with the goal of hiring 31.

“Some of them are former law enforcement officers, some of them are current JCOs, some of them are [contract staff], it’s just all over,” she said.

Hendrick said the team has already been put to use, with the goal of heading off incidents that require SLED intervention.

SLED reports providing 139 agents, over nine incidents in 2022 for a total of approximately 350 man hours in 2022.

A spokesperson reports the agency has not responded to the DJJ in 2023 as of Feb. 8.

Hendrick was resistant to the idea of keeping SLED on campus indefinitely.

“I don’t think that’s how SLED is designed, I think the better goal would be for us to up our own employees to match the level of SLED,” she said.

Hendrick said she’s also regularly questioned about if the national guard could assist at the property, but said they wouldn’t be able to interface with the youth.

The press release also announced the implementation of the Credible Messengers initiative- a mentoring program for the youth. The goal would be for vetted and trained neighborhood leaders to help provide youth with a positive adult role model and an outlet for communication.

Additionally, she said the department is undergoing capital improvement projects to “harden” the facilities. She cited the replacement of porcelain toilets with metal (to avoid having the toilets ripped from the walls, ensure fixtures are detention grade and construct interior doors in the open bay rooms.

A statement from Hendrick sent in response to the Lyles and McLeod questions read in part:

We are in the process of replacing the current key card control system with a more sophisticated model that will be tied to the security camera system. The agency plans to install the system in all occupied buildings, allowing the agency to have real-time information about the location of employees. Birchwood School is the first building to be upgraded. During specific emergency situations, the system will allow school employees to have access to safe rooms while other doors will be locked. The agency is also developing an emergency communication processes to notify employees through emails and texts. We are also enhancing radio communications and the security camera system to be more efficient and effective in the daily security needs of the agency and in emergency situations.

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