By Clint Confehr
COLUMBIA, TN — The Rev. T.D. “Donte” Byrdsong, a pastor at Grace United Baptist Church here and in Nashville, stepped up and quoted the Bible after his court hearing Wednesday.
“‘We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed,’” Byrdsong said, citing 2nd Corinthians 4:8-9 KJV. “‘We are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.’
“That’s about all I can say at this time,” he concluded in a late afternoon text.
Byrdsong had been asked if his faith was tested when he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of simple assault. Months ago, Byrdsong had more to say about what led to his legal agreement that morning; he was defending a child.
Just after 11 a.m., Dec. 9, he stood before Maury County Circuit Court Judge Stella L. Hargrove with one of his attorneys, Doak Patton of Brentwood who had “no comment” after the hearing. Patton’s defense of Byrdsong was assisted by attorney Julie Riggs.
Two felony charges were dismissed and a third reduced to a misdemeanor for the preacher and former school resource officer at Maury County’s E.A. Cox Middle School. Assistant District Attorney Jude Santiago prosecuted the case for District Attorney Brent Cooper. A Maury County Grand Jury indicted Byrdsong after the county’s Civil Service Board on Jan. 8, 2019 voted 4-1 to confirm Sheriff Bucky Rowland’s dismissal of Byrdsong in December 2018. At first, Byrdsong declined plea bargain opportunities. He wanted a trial. The coronavirus pandemic forced the judicial system to suspend open court for months.
In a type of hearing that’s been described by other judges as a procedure for judicial efficiency, Byrdsong stood at the end of a line with four other defendants and their lawyers so their trial waivers and petitions to plead guilty could be accepted together. Hargrove reviewed terms of the separate agreements. One defendant did not agree to the terms and, Hargrove said, would go to trial on a charge of driving while intoxicated. It was the grandmother’s alleged seventh or eighth offense, according to statements in open court.
Byrdsong is executive pastor at the Baptist congregations on East 8th Street here and on Dickerson Pike in Nashville. The 2019 graduate of American Baptist College had faced a potential 30-year sentence on the now-dropped aggravated child abuse charge stemming from a Nov. 30, 2018 incident in a middle school.
Public records and announcements in court state an official misconduct charge was dropped and an aggravated assault charge was reduced to simple assault. Byrdsong is to pay a $50 fine and is on probation for a year.
Pastor Kerry DeWayne James Sr., another pastor at Grace United Baptist Church, said Thursday, “I’ll take simple assault over a felony any day.” James has been a substitute and interim teacher for Metro Nashville Public Schools. He’s seen teachers and students assaulted, and “I have been hit,” James said. “In all the years that I’ve known Pastor Birdsong, I’ve never witnessed him in a violent manner.” There’s more to be told.
The case started when Byrdsong was the president of the Columbia-Maury County Branch of the NAACP.
At that time, he was one of more than a dozen SROs in Maury County Public Schools and the only African American among them. Byrdsong previously said that to the best of his knowledge he was the county’s second Black SRO.
The former school resource officer denied using unnecessary force while protecting a sixth-grade boy from a bully two years ago. In January 2019, he said an 11-year-old boy had assaulted another boy, 11, three times at the school. Byrdsong said in a fourth incident, he “intervened and stood between [the boys].” As an aggressor, the boy broke the hold of a teacher and ran in an attempt to assault the other boy again. The then-SRO was between the two, talking with the other boy. “When I looked up, I saw [him] … deflected him with an open hand … [He] attempted … assault … again … I grabbed him and took him to the floor.”
The daily newspaper in Columbia and a TV station in Nashville quoted the sheriff as saying during the Civil Service Board hearing: “You don’t deal with grown men on the street like this…
“Byrdsong cuts him off … turns the student and takes four or five shuffle steps away,” Rowland reportedly said after the board supported his decision to dismiss Byrdsong. The sheriff suggested other controls, including handcuffs. Instead, Byrdsong “chose to pick this student up above his shoulder and slam him to the ground,” Rowland was quoted as telling the board.
Asked about the sheriff, Byrdsong said, “I really enjoyed working with [Rowland] and his officers. I respect the leadership position … I have no ill things to say about [him] … In his opinion, the force used to defend and protect one child from a bully was excessive, contrary to [testimony of] Melvin Brown, an expert witness” who spoke to the Civil Service Board.
Byrdsong said the 11-year-old aggressor “has a history of violent and aggressive behavior. He’d already assaulted other students. This is a bully.”
That boy’s mother said her son suffered a concussion and she complained first aid or other medical help wasn’t sought for her son by Byrdsong.
A school security camera recorded what it could see. “He shared me the video with me,” James said. “Although I do not condone what I witnessed, I do not believe he would hurt anyone intentionally and the Video does not show the whole story. The boy was very aggressive.” What Byrdsong did was based on “a quick decision keep another student from being hurt; a student who had been bullied periodically.”
“I was able to talk with the child and parent of the child Pastor Byrdsong was trying to protect,” James said, explaining he attended a meeting at Grace United with Byrdsong, the boy who was bullied, his mother, other pastors and members in the community. “From what I was told when talking with the parent, the child was terrified during the assault.
“My heart goes out to those two boys,” James said. “Youth of today are products of an environment that they did not choose.” James has been trained on how to de-escalate violence. He suggests such lessons should be taught in schools to students and employees.
“Pastor Byrdsong was villainized by this thing through the video which does not tell the whole story,” James said.
“What bothered me the most, as a pastor, was the fact that the same kind of thing happened there and at other schools,” James continued, alleging a lack of equal treatment for Byrdsong. “I never pull the race card. I see people as people, but there have been other students who were hurt by an SRO and they were not dismissed.” Birdsong’s predecessor at Cox Middle School was removed from that job because he had an altercation with another student who had been violent. That sheriff’s employee was assigned to another job in the department, James said.
As was reported in Middle Tennessee at the time, the NAACP branch here lost certification because state and national officials of the NAACP found its membership to have fallen to a level that required suspension of regular operations. Byrdsong, a single parent of one, was seen by some area residents as having more responsibilities than normal during those months. His predecessor at the branch, Paco Havard, became Byrdsong’s successor. Havard was re-elected this fall.
With an ABC bachelors of theology, Byrdsong is studying on-line for a master’s degree in criminal justice from Bethel University in McKenzie.
James emphasized his advocacy for non-violent action, but added that he recognizes Byrdsong “made a decision that day that affects him greatly.” It’s known in the Columbia community that Byrdsong wants to work in law enforcement. James is uncertain about whether Byrdsong can realize that ambition.
Byrdsong, 29, started as a correctional officer in October 2017 at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. He was certified by the Police Officers Standards and Training Commission in spring 2018. Also that spring, he became an SRO, then a patrol deputy during summer break, and then he returned to his SRO position. His pay rate was nearly $16 per hour.
Elected in November 2016, he became the youngest branch president in Maury County. At the time, he said, “For all of those who have been waiting for a change, the time is now. Just like Obama ran on hope, our word is action.”