CRIME

Mentoring program among plans to curb youth crimes in Iberville Parish

Staff Report

Editor's note: This is the first of two parts from a community forum that addressed ways to make Plaquemine a safer city. Part 1 focuses on juvenile crime.

A mentoring program is in the works to help guide adolescent boys and girls away from a life of crime and help instill trust between them and local peace officers.

Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi announced the plan during “Senseless: Restoring Unity in the Community,” a public forum Plymouth Rock Baptist Church hosted Sunday evening.

The gathering brought together residents, clergy members and law enforcement from the IPSO and officials Plaquemine City Police Department, as well as Mayor Ed Reeves and the Plaquemine Board of Selectmen.

The forum served as a follow-up to the first forum to measure accountability on the issues residents and clergy members brought before officials last October.

The plans for the mentorship program were a result of discussions at the first meeting.

The mentorship program involves ages 12 to 15, and it will include boys and girls groups.

Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi outlines his plans for a mentoring program to build a bond between adolescents and law enforcement in the community. He was among several speakers at “Senseless: Restoring Unity in the Community,” a public forum Plymouth Rock Baptist Church hosted Sunday night.

“We thought 12 was old enough and 15 was young enough where kids will still think it’s cool enough to attend,” Stassi said. “It’s not just going to be shooting basketball… we’re going to come out and decide what we want to talk about.”

The Iberville Sheriff’s Office is in the process of starting the program, Stassi said.

The program will be held in conjunction with the City of Plaquemine, which will grant use of the COPAC center on Fort Street for the bi-weekly sessions.

“We may do a barbecue class for them, and we’ll feed them that night,” he said.

The program will allow interaction with law enforcement officials in hopes of building a mentoring program for adolescents, the sheriff said.

Each participant will receive T-shirt that reads “Together Today, Better Tomorrow.”

Stassi reached out to Deputy Harold Zachary to oversee the program.

Zachary is a lifelong White Castle resident whom Stassi described as “a great role model.”

The 2015 White Castle High School athlete. He lettered in multiple sports and maintained a high GPA in school.

“He works with kids in the community, and he’s a great role model for our youth,” the sheriff said. “He’s truly an asset to the Iberville Parish Sheriff’s Office, and I’ve asked him to take charge.”

Stassi said he wants to launch the program within a month.

“We have people come in my office telling me stories of how they got arrested and had been with a friend they shouldn’t have been with,” he said. “We talk to the judge about getting the bond so this person can get out, and I’ll go to District Attorney Tony Clayton explain that the person may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“These true first offenders deserve the help, and we don’t have judges in Iberville Parish who are unreachable. I can reach Judge (Alvin Battiste) 24/7,” Stassi said. “That’s the kind of relationship we have here… open-door policies to talk to the kids and help them, because there’s no reason to ruin somebody’s life over a small charge we can help with.”

Registration forms will be available in schools across the parish.

He believes noncriminal interaction with officers could help ease the stigma on law enforcement, particularly with children.

“That’s why the Student Resource Officer works so well – they get to see an officer without the threat of being arrested,” Stassi said.

He said he has also secured $600,000 from the Pennington Foundation for a building and program that would bring in retired teachers to provide tutoring for students.

“It’s about whatever we can do to help the kids do the right thing,” Stassi said. “We want to be proactive and not reactive after something happens, so hopefully this will help us become more proactive.”

Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney Tony Clayton spoke on the need for Plaquemine and all areas of the parish to band together against youth crime in Iberville Parish. Pictured in the background is Plaquemine Assistant Police Chief Stephen Engolio.

Clayton, meanwhile, emphasized that he operates on an “open door” policy.

“You don’t need an appointment – I’m in Iberville on Monday and Wednesday, New Roads on Tuesday and West Baton Rouge on Wednesday,” he said. “You can talk to judges, as well, and they’ll talk to you unless you have a case pending.

“As for me, I’m nothing without you. I came from Nats Alley, and I’m here because you guys allowed me to be your district attorney.”

The efforts are geared toward building more positive influences for the youth in the community, and perhaps give them the strength to dodge peer pressure.

PEER PRESSURE …

Heide Butler had high hopes for her grandson, who went out for football and enrolled in a welding class.

She said she saw him taking responsibility for himself and his education, but a coworker asked her why her grandson had been absent from workouts.

Butler found out her grandson reunited with a friend from elementary school who signed a contract with a rap music producer.

“The kid asked him to become part of that, and he began to change, and he eventually left home,” she said. “He started living in Texas with them, and there was nothing I could do in my strength to get him back… whatever promises they made seemed greater than what I could do.”

One month before he died, she asked him why he took a different direction.

“He told me they promised me I could be rich,” she said. “But once you get into that life you can’t get out of that because all the riff-raff is done through social media these days.”

The fight that led to his murder stemmed from a social media riff.

“The person who killed him had no idea who he was,” she said. “That’s been my journey with the life out there for kids now.”

YOUTH CRIMES…

The 14 to 22 age group is the most common group of young people loitering on the streets, Clayton said.

“Rarely do we have a guy over 23 years old… he’s a dinosaur,” he said. “At 23, you see a sharp decline in who wants to be on the street listening to rap. You’ll see it going right down to the bottom.”

He encouraged engagement with the law enforcement.

Clayton said he wants Plaquemine “to be first city in the country to adopt that philosophy.”

He hopes to see Plaquemine engage “zero murders” in 2023.

“We haven’t had any yet, and if we get one, don’t get deterred… just keep doing what I’m telling you,” Clayton said. “We’re all in this together.”

The biggest challenge law enforcement faces with violent juvenile offenders stems from finding a detention facility that will house them, Plaquemine Assistant Police Chief Stephen Engolio said.

“I don’t have anyone who is a juvenile homicide suspect, but when I got there last year, they were still bringing a young guy back and forth,” he said. “It’s expensive to house a juvenile, and the main thing is that it’s very hard to find a facility with a bed for them – unless they shot someone, you probably won’t get a bed for a juvenile.

“The worst part is that the juvenile knows that,” Engolio said. “The process is that we always get a parent or a grandparent or aunt or uncle… we can’t question a juvenile without an adult family member, and sometimes we have a lot of trouble getting that.”

Many juvenile offenders remain mired in a life of crime because “they feel they have reached a point of no return,” he said.

“That’s where we start losing some of those kids,” Engolio said. “I’ve seen full-blown adult gangsters turn their lives around.”

Plaquemine offers enough opportunity to lead young people toward a better direction in life, he said.

“This is Plaquemine in Iberville Parish – we’re not in South Central Los Angeles,” Engolio said. “We have industry coming out of the wazoo, so there are ways for them to turn their lives around.”

Clayton recommended that Plaquemine acknowledge benchmarks on how long it goes without a murder.

“What if we say that 30 days, we haven’t had a murder… Baton Rouge has already had two or three,” he said. “If we can keep Plaquemine off the radar, it will become contagious, and then it will lead to the same for White Castle, St. Gabriel and Maringouin.”

NEXT WEEK: A discussion with Plaquemine Mayor Ed Reeves on the efforts to reduce blight and reduce the number of abandoned dwellings in the city limits.