"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."
School board members Mark Babineaux, Hunter Beasley and Tehmi Chassion can vote to fire Cooper — because we all know that’s exactly what they’ll do.
District 2 school board candidate Simon Mahan is hoping to unseat first-term incumbent and former Carencro Mayor Tommy Angelle in the Nov. 4 election.
District Attorney Mike Harson is showing his desperation by falsely attributing quotes to his opponent and blocking journalists from his social media.
The governor is traveling the country laying the groundwork for a possible 2016 presidential campaign, but his approval ratings at home hover well below 50 percent.
State District Judge Bob Downing extended the order and delayed a planned Wednesday hearing about a permanent injunction while negotiations continue between Attorney General Buddy Caldwell and the waste disposal site operator.
New Louisiana higher education commissioner Joseph Rallo will be paid more than his predecessor.
Elijah McGuire and Alonzo Harris each had four rushing touchdowns, and Louisiana-Lafayette rolled to 419 yards on the ground in a 55-40 victory over Arkansas State on Tuesday night.
Bill and Hillary Clinton are the validators-in-chief for Democrats struggling through a bleak campaign season in states where President Barack Obama is deeply unpopular.
President Barack Obama is turning to black radio listeners to plead for midterm votes, a targeted approach to drum up Democratic support at a time when many candidates don't want him around in person.
WaPo Watergate editor Ben Bradlee dies; Clintons stump for Dems; Liberians stranded and more national and international news for Wednesday, October 22, 2014.
Wednesday's Blogs from the Bog!
"I am extremely disheartened by the political machines that are attempting to hijack my efforts along with others that advocate for children."
Landrieu, who is fighting to keep her seat for a fourth term, said that Ebola is serious and precautions should be taken, but she accused Republicans of using the virus outbreak in West Africa to "create fear" here at home.
Law enforcement agencies are participating in a "Louisiana Heroin Summit," designed to address the recent rise in heroin use and drug-related deaths around the state.
State education officials are preparing to release performance scores for public schools and public school districts.
Saints coach Sean Payton is starting a new week by emphasizing, repeatedly, the many good things he noticed during New Orleans' latest loss.
We will be offering our recommendations on the constitutional amendments tomorrow.
The justices did not comment in leaving in place lower court rulings that dismissed the lawsuits against BP and other companies involved in the worst U.S. offshore oil spill.
White registration is down by 7,700 voters while black registration has shot up by 7,100 voters.
Even though it had been rumored for months, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu finally pulled the trigger recently on a major campaign shakeup that moved control over to a few Big Easy insiders.
Louisiana's health department says it will seek law changes to stop billing sexual assault victims for exams and tests.
It wasn’t the historic slashes to higher ed funding or the ensuing tuition spikes that recently had LSU’s student body and faculty riled up in collective outrage.
Will $400 be enough for the re-election campaign of LPSB's Hunter Beasley to overcome two years of holding our school system hostage and hurting the education of our children all because of a personal dislike of the superintendent?
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said Friday he expects his playing status in Detroit to be decided by coach Sean Payton on Sunday, shortly before the game.
Lawmakers have sidestepped a decision on whether they accept claims from Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration that the state closed last year's books with a nearly $179 million surplus.