"Hindsight's 20-20," says AMI spokeswoman Michele Money. "Do we wish we would have done it a little bit different? Probably, but in our eyes we weren't doing anything hush-hush, under the radar. We don't have anything to hide. As a matter of fact, we're extremely proud of our record."
AMI, which is planning to construct a 10,000-square-foot residential school for juvenile offenders along Hoffpauir Road, maintains that its facility is safe and provides a needed service to the community. The campus is for nonviolent youth offenders and will resemble a nursing home, without the fencing and razor wire associated with lockdown facilities for hardened criminals. Inside the doors of what it will call Acadiana Marine Institute, the nonprofit organization promises to deliver one-on-one counseling and schooling to help put at-risk kids on the right track.
But area residents can't shake the fact that a few dozen convicted criminals will be moving into their quaint, rural neighborhood. Jennifer Horton, a local doctor who lives in the area, wrote the Independent Weekly: "Whether you call it a 'jail' or 'residential facility' is not really the point. AMI wants to move kids into our neighborhood who have been convicted of a crime. AMI does not plan to put a fence around their compound because it would be 'offensive to the kids.' That is not going to make me feel safe at night."
Along Golden Grain and Hoffpauir Roads, more than a dozen signs that read "Stop the jail on Hoffpauir Road" have cropped up in front of homes. Jerry Meaux, president of the board for SLEMCO, is organizing opposition to the facility. Meaux and other residents have hired public relations consultant Sandy Kaplan and attorney Jimmy Davidson (who is also the attorney for SLEMCO) to assist in their fight.
Meaux referred The Independent Weekly to Kaplan, who says he has been directed not to comment until a public hearing scheduled for Tuesday, May 29, at the Lafayette City-Parish Council meeting.
Lenwood Broussard, councilman for the west Lafayette district, isn't aware of any legal actions residents could take that would derail the project. The facility's site falls outside of the city's zoning jurisdiction and has already received plat approval.
"As an elected official, I've got to represent that district," Broussard says. "And I'm not happy that we've got this turmoil going on and there's not much I can do about it. The only avenue I have is to get people to the meeting and let them express themselves and what their concerns are."
Many of the residents were particularly disturbed after learning of the facility through word of mouth, without any type of official notification from the company or local government.
"Why haven't we been told about this?" Broussard asks. "When were they going to tell us that this so-called safe place that they're going to put out there was going to be built? If it's not bad, why didn't y'all let us know about it? Because it's controversial."
Since the opposition arose, AMI has faced an uphill public relations battle. Concerned residents in Judice have already discovered a couple of troubling incidents that occurred at other AMI-owned facilities across the country. In the early '90s, two juveniles housed with an AMI subsidiary were convicted on murder charges for bludgeoning their work supervisor to death. News of the incident has quickly spread down the sparsely populated area of Hoffpauir and Golden Grain roads.
Some residents are also panic-stricken by the fact that the facility will be housing juveniles from across the state. "When you say New Orleans," Broussard says, "with the crime that's happening out there, it really concerns them."
AMI does have its local defenders, with a regional board of directors that includes Lafayette Parish Sheriff Mike Neustrom, District Attorney Mike Harson, District Judge Tommy Duplantier, Dru Milke, Dr. Kenneth Odinet, Hank Perret, Lenny Lemoine, Jerry Prejean, Glenn Decou, Greg Ellison and Kyle Love.
Neustrom believes people have developed false impressions about AMI's juvenile group home. "I wish we could somehow fast forward a year or two," he says, "have the facility up and running and then measure the public response to it. Because I think it's going to be positive. It all boils down to how it's managed, and I think it will be managed properly and it'll be an asset to the community."
One thing's clear: Acadiana needs this type of program. According to the state Office of Youth Development, the Acadiana region has the highest number of juveniles currently court-ordered to out-of-home facilities, including both secure and nonsecure sites, in the state. The area also includes the two zip codes with the highest number of adjudicated youth ' North Lafayette's 70501 zip code and the 70560 area of New Iberia. Adjudicated youths are those deemed by a court to be delinquent, unruly, dependent, neglected or abused.
Many at-risk youths from Acadiana are shuffled off to group homes and secured facilities in other parts of the state because of a lack of local options. OYD says it currently has only 31 group home beds for adjudicated youths in the region. The AMI facility would house another 36.
Neustrom points to studies showing that kids kept closer to their families have a better chance at rehabilitation than those that are sent off to other area centers. "It's a better chance of success if it's closer to home and the family can be incorporated into the treatment," he says. "It helps."
AMI officials are counting on the support of the surrounding community. Sirrnest Webster, executive director of a 31-bed AMI facility in Wimauma, Fla., just outside of Tampa Bay, says community acceptance is a critical component of his group home's mission.
"We're not using hardware to keep our kids there," he says. "We're using our relationships to keep them there. We have kids that want to be in the program."
When the Wimauma facility was built, residents in the area were initially apprehensive. Now, Webster says many are involved as volunteers. "It takes a village to raise kids," he says. "There are so many different dynamics that went on to get these kids where they're at, but despite that, they can still make it."
Webster says the community has remained safe, and they have only had a few escape attempts with students, which never resulted in any crimes. AMI's Money says that despite isolated problems at other schools, including the one in South Carolina, the company's overall track record is good.
"AMI is not unlike any other school," she says. "There are going to be incidents. What we try to focus on is we have a stellar safety record if you look over the past 40 years. We go to great lengths to keep our students and the community safe."
AMI also touts an overall success rate of 70 percent for more than 75,000 students served ' meaning none of these kids have had further contact with the juvenile justice system.
"If not for programs like AMI," Webster says, "troubled kids would have no other choice. There's some risk. We feel it is well worth the risk, and we are taking these kids and giving them a second chance."
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Monday, April 21, 2014:
Monday's Blogs from the Bog!
Local and state agents Thursday night raided The Keg, the popular college bar located in the area known as The Strip, leading to the (at least) temporary closure of the venue.
Time and time again, the Lafayette Parish School Board shows an overwhelming tendency toward idiocy, but Wednesday night’s contentious discussion over Northside High School’s teen mother program tops the list of dumb discussions.
“The accomplishment of this goal within the next ten years is not only critical for the region to effectively compete with other regions for residents and businesses, but also to provide an amenity for everyone in Acadiana to enjoy.”
Education Superintendent John White says a continued push to try to keep Louisiana from using tests associated with the Common Core education standards are creating "a state of chaos" for public school teachers.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's plan to use $210 million in surplus and one-time money to help balance next year's budget received the backing Thursday of the State Bond Commission, support that was needed for the maneuver to work.
State wildlife and fisheries agents have arrested a 39-year-old man accused of stealing crawfish.
An East Feliciana Parish lawmaker has jettisoned his proposal to make it harder for a condemned prisoner to appeal a death sentence.
Senators advanced a proposal Wednesday that would let the governor remove New Orleans-area levee board members for violating what he considers to be public policy, despite concerns it would introduce political meddling into state flood protection.
The Lafayette City-Parish Council on Tuesday will vote on a resolution that if approved would clear the way for a December ballot proposition asking voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax parishwide to help fund the construction of a new terminal at Lafayette Regional Airport.
Just days before the fourth anniversary of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster and oil spill, the Coast Guard has moved cleanup of Louisiana's coast to a new phase, allowing BP to end its "active" efforts in the area.
Legislators still must leave their guns at the door of the Louisiana Capitol.
Sen. Fred Mills may have an "R" behind his name, but his actions in the Louisiana Legislature transcend the established boundaries of his party.
The Louisiana House overwhelmingly rejected a repeal of the state's unconstitutional anti-sodomy law Tuesday.
The Louisiana Senate sided with Gov. Bobby Jindal and the oil industry Tuesday, agreeing to void a lawsuit that a south Louisiana flood board filed against more than 90 oil and gas companies for coastal damage.
Acadian rep notifies would-be supporters that an April 25 fundraiser for the embattled U.S. rep won’t go on as planned.
While it isn’t all too unusual for public bodies to have hired security present during meetings, the LPSB’s push to do so is arguably a response to the antics of one board member.
“I’m running. Why would I be raising all this money? Just to have to return it to people?”
With incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu watching from afar, and with a united Democratic Party in her corner, the fight to get the GOP officially behind Congressman Bill Cassidy is gaining just as much momentum as it is hushed controversy.
15th Judicial District Judge Durwood Conque has announced that he will not seek re-election after 27 years on the bench.
The controversial standardized tests are set to be used in third-grade through eighth-grade public school classrooms next year.
The Louisiana Senate has agreed to prohibit unmanned aircraft from flying over chemical plants, water treatment systems, telecommunications networks and other items considered "critical infrastructure" in Louisiana.
It didn’t take long for KATC TV 3 to jump all over the news of a dead body found in Girard Park, but in its rush to produce headlines, the local TV station got sloppy.
An unholy trinity of civil-society upheavalers whose first names are not Conner, Tanner or Logan are facing charges in Eunice.