When teenagers get out of control in Hamilton County juvenile detention, it's a dangerous situation for everybody -- the problem teens, the young bystanders and the detention officers themselves.
One especially bad day this past summer has led to changes that some people will see, as a sign of the times.
Dinner at the Hamilton County Juvenile Detention Center on July 24th.. Routine, by many standards.
"It was just an everyday atmosphere," recalls Detention Officer Michael Bogardus. "There was nothing really.. no tension that I could tell."
But there was tension among the 14 teenage boys in the lunchroom, so much so, that the fight that broke out was just the beginningCLICK HERE to see the fight (raw video, no audio)
Without warning, one juvenile inmate throws his food tray into the face of another.. trays fly, inmates fight and guards try to regain control.
A few minutes later, as things begin to calm down, another outbreak begins, then another. While guards were T, watch the right part of the screen, and also the struggling guard on the right.. three separate fights going on, all, at the same time.
"While we were trying to main one fight, another fight would light up," Bogardus says. "There were just so many of us and so many of them."
Detention officer Michael Sekenski was somewhere in the brawl - it's hard to tell where. He suffered nerve damage to his shoulder and neck and has been off job ever since.
The fight lasted about 10 minutes. Detention officers who responded say, it was the longest 10 minutes of their law enforcement careers.
"My staff was not what you would call, in control of that situation," says Juvenile Court Administrator Sam Mairs. "They did admirably under the circumstances in my opinion, based on what I witnessed."
The wave of fights on that day - this loss of control - was a turning point for Hamilton County Juvenile Detention.
"There is nothing safe about that scenario," says Mairs, "and that is what ultimately pushed me to go to the next level of research to find out how to better prepare our detention officers."
Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw agreed that Hamilton County would arm detention officers with Pepper Spray. "We're just trying to stay ahead of the curve," he says. "We want to stay current on new procedures as much as we can, so that we can deal with fight situations when they arise."
Every juvenile detention officer who deals with the kids on a daily basis, had to go through training on the use of pepper spray, which involved getting a good dose of it themselves.
"Right when it first hits your face, it's just like getting hot grease thrown in your face," says Detention Officer David Navas. He about almost three dozen other detention officers went through the training, which also involved a written test on the understanding of chemical sprays.
Until now, detention officers could defend and maintain order by using only their bare hands and whatever advantage in size or smarts they may have. Now they have a tool that Judge Philyaw and others believe is a good compromise because it is effective but leaves no lasting effect.
"Pepper spray is going to accomplish one thing," says Mairs. "It is going to make the environment safer back there in detention."
Hamilton now becomes the largest of Tennessee's counties to use pepper spray in juvenile detention a practice that has drawn criticism in some other communities.
The Center for Children's Law and Policy says "using chemicals against juveniles will lead them to feel anger and distrust against detention staff charged with caring for them."
"It would be nice to have other alternatives," says Donna Maddux, who directs the Johnson Mental Health Center in Chattanooga. "I have to believe that all those alternatives have been researched.. and (pepper spray) was the best and less invasive thing they thought they could do."
Juvenile detention administrators believe pepper spray will provide officers the confidence they need to maintain order and protect themselves and the children.
Mairs says, he believes it's all about having the correct mindset.
"If an officer actually goes back there into that unit and they're scared of what might happen if a fight breaks out," he says, "they're already gearing up for bad choices."
The problem of handling juvenile detention fights is also a pocketbook issue for Hamilton County Taxpayers..
Hamilton County is self-insured, which means taxpayers get hit with the bills when an officer needs medical attention for an injury.
Last year, two on-the-job officer injuries cost $50,160. So far this year, 5 officers have been injured, including Detention Officer Sekenski, and that has cost you $31,250.
Hamilton County Juvenile Detention officers will begin carrying pepper spray, as soon as wash stations are installed in about 2 weeks.