Community meeting urges unity against youth violence

Staff Report

Residents, clergy and law enforcement agree that it will take a united effort for the Plaquemine area to curb youth crimes, and they acknowledge that the solution will not come easy.

Approximately 200 residents who gathered for the “Senseless! Restoring Unity in the Community” forum Sunday night at Plymouth Rock Baptist Church said they are ready to work together for a solution.

The Iberville Ministers Conference (headed by Rev. Clyde McNell of Plymouth Rock Baptist Church) and the Women’s Auxiliary (led by Linda Johnson) organized the event.

Those who attended the event said they want to ensure safety for residents, and to take steps that may redirect adolescents from a life of drugs and violent crime.

District Attorney Tony Clayton was among the speakers during “Senseless! Restoring Unity in the Community” forum aimed at stopping youth violence. Plaquemine City Police Chief Administrator Robbie Johnson, shown in the background, also spoke during the meeting Sunday at Plymouth Rock Baptist Church.

“What we have here tonight is a community of people who are sick and tired of being sick and tired,” District Attorney Tony Clayton said. “We want to be proactive because people are entitled to have a safe home, and they want to be able walk down the sidewalk safely.”

Clayton described what happens when he gets a call late at night regarding youth violence.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s going to be a Black male who looks like me … really, one who looks like my kids,” he said. “They’re getting younger and younger…. It’s one of the worst things you ever want to see when you walk up and see a kid with his eyes open and there’s a bullet hole through his head chest.

“Do I cry sometimes? Yes, you have to cry. And this is happening in your community.”

While ideas and comments varied during most of the discussion, those in attendance agreed that staying in school provides a far better opportunity than roaming the streets.

Truancy is an issue in the Iberville School District, but schools need the help of the parents to ensure their child remains at school, said Brandi Blanchard, Supervisor of Child Welfare for the Iberville Parish School District.

“We try our best to keep them in school, but we can’t parent the children,” she said. “If the parents aren’t behind us, they’re not at school and they’re not watched, and they’re doing whatever they wish to do.

“We are seeing the behavior issues escalate – lot of fights,” Blanchard said. “Typically, those children are also truancy children.”

The School System will go through reasons why a student may not want to go to school and offer parents interventions and resource officers.

“Some of the parents try very hard, but sometimes it gets to the point that the parents can’t control the children,” Blanchard said.

Mental health factored significantly into the discussion.

Depression that starts in the home from issues that include loneliness, boredom, abuse, low self-esteem and other factors often lead young people in the wrong direction, residents said.

A memorandum of understanding with Access Health for parish schools provides access to social workers (with parental consent), Blanchard said.

Resident Warren Bates believes the lack of parenting and the lack of recreational activities lead to many of those problems.

‘They’re all angry because they have no place to go,” he said. “You can put up a basketball court, but they don’t have programs where they can reach out the way they talk to young people.

“I’m sure a lot of guys are willing to step up and volunteer their services,” Bates said. “Let them go play basketball, talk and spend some time with each other.”

Additional activities for local youth could also help curb the violence, resident Juanita Johnson said.

“Nobody wants to be yelled at… they want to be treated as human beings,” she said. “I see young people being bored because there’s nothing to do.”

Robbie Johnson, Chief Administrative Officer for the Plaquemine City Police, said he had worked on plans with Selectmen Oscar S. Mellion and Jimmie Randle, but both have died within the past year.

Community centers do not solve all the problems, Johnson emphasized.

“I’m not saying not’s not good to have those things, but you still have to change the mindset of the children and the adults,” he said. “If the mindset doesn’t change, there will be killing at those youth centers and other places.“I’m not saying not to have those places, but you have to change the culture – and that’s a mission,” Johnson said.

As for truancy, the parish school system has one full-time truancy officer, while the Iberville Parish Sheriff’s Office staffs a school resource officer (SRO) at all public schools, and two at Plaquemine High School.

Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi addresses the audience at a community forum.

“And if we need seven deputies to go get seven kids every day, we got the manpower to do it, and we will continue to do it," Sheriff Brett Stassi said.

Even though responsibility ultimately rests on the shoulders of the parents, Stassi said he is willing to step forward.

“I used to blame the problems on the dad being out of the family or not there, but the more I’m around people I understand we have to do more as a community,” he said.

Stassi said he will ask his deputies to start a men’s club, and will help sponsor it to provide uniforms.

It does not give parents a pass on responsibility, he said.

“Family starts at the home, and we get them as they go through school and so on, but we need the family and community to help more,” Stassi said. “Law enforcement can’t do it all … by the time we get them, it’s often too late.” 

Johnson said he hopes it’s not the only time they meet to address the issues. “I hope this isn’t a flash in the pan,” he said. “I just want things to change.”