By HARRIET PROTHRO PENROD
In Part II of my “Lunch with Harriet” feature with Clay Walker, he talks about the fight to curb violence in our community.
Clay Walker knew he had his work cut out for him when he became Caddo Parish Director of Juvenile Services in April 2011. In this role, he oversees the 85 staff members that run juvenile probation and juvenile detention.
“When I took over the administration of juvenile court, the school system was arresting thousands of kids for fights and sending them to juvenile detention,” he said during our lunch on the patio at Ki’ Mexico. “That’s part of the reason we’re overcrowded.
“With thousands of kids being arrested and overcrowding juvenile detention, then what ends up happening is: You take a kid that has a fight and he stays three nights with a kid that committed armed robbery — you may be teaching him a lesson about fighting, but you’re teaching him six lessons you didn’t want to teach him about juvenile delinquency.”
According to Walker, that began to change after Dr. Lamar Goree took over as Superintendent of Caddo Parish Schools.
“The school system dramatically changed when that happened,” says Walker. “Since he (Goree) started, we have reduced school-based arrests by 64 percent.”
It’s not that kids stopped fighting; it’s how those kids who fight are being handled that has changed.
Now when kids fight, the principal decides if they get arrested or go to School Fight Diversion (SFD). In SFD, the students are essentially suspended from school and sent to a different school – where they go to counseling on conflict resolution. Then their parents have to come in and help resolve the conflict.
It’s a solution that worked.
“Ninety-four percent of those kids don’t have another fight that school year,” explains Walker. “When they finish the session they go back to school, where they can make up their work. So you don’t disconnect them from their education.”
By the 2018-2019 school year, things had improved dramatically – the number of school fights had decreased, which meant kids were not being incarcerated for misdemeanors like they had previously been.
“Truancy – the first symptom of the problem – was being really attacked,” states Walker. “Between the school system and Volunteers for Youth Justice, things were getting much, much better.”
Then, according to Walker, two things happened: 1) Instagram and guns, and 2) Covid.
And those led to an increase in gang activity.
“By March 2020, every kid vulnerable to a gang became more vulnerable to a gang,” says Walker. “When they stopped going to school, gang membership blew up. We were already looking into it in 2018-19 and then that happened. What you’re seeing now is the constant retaliatory shooting that is gang-related.”
The vicious cycle continues – more gang activity, more shootings, more incarceration.
For those numbers to decrease, Walker believes a few things must happen.
First, we must do a better job rehabilitating those that are locked up. “Incarceration doesn’t mean anything anymore,” he says. “Kids will do two years and not have any thought of turning themselves around. All they’re doing is earning stripes with their squad.”
Next, we need more criminal judges in Caddo. “We have only five,” says Walker. “East Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Jefferson have something like 15 each.”
Finally, we must put more effort into prevention. And that is where Walker is working the hardest.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study that was done in the mid-1990s showed that kids who were exposed to trauma were more likely to experience homelessness and become involved in criminal activity.
“It taught us a lot about the trauma the kids in juvenile court had gone through,” Walker says of the ACE Study. “It told us why they’re acting the way they’re acting.”
In addition to presenting ACE training – Walker recently conducted training for all principals in Bossier Parish – he responds to individual cases that arise at school.
“If I can identify a kid who is having difficulty when they’re 7 or 8 and solve the problem, it’s a whole lot easier to do it then than when they’re a 16-year-old,” he explains.
And Walker has an idea about how to solve the problem when they’re 7 or 8.
Just look what happened after the terrible tragedy that took place in 2010 when six teenagers drowned in the Red River.
“Out of that, a swimming program was created (in partnership with the YMCA of Northwest Louisiana, Caddo Parish Schools and the Community Foundation of North Louisiana) where every child by second grade is bussed to the Y and taught about water safety,” says Walker.
“How did we do that? Smart people who gave a damn got together and solved it – with bussing, money, swim teachers, pool access. They said, ‘Whatever it takes, we can’t have another drowning like that.’”
Walker believes the same thing can be accomplished with a program that gets these young kids into activities – sports, arts, music, etc. – that, for whatever reason, are not available to them.
In other words, if the community can come together and save kids’ lives after the horrific drowning tragedy, it can do the same with juvenile crime.
And to that end, the YMCA of Northwest Louisiana is hosting the next installment of its “Shreveport-Bossier – My City, My Community, My Home” initiative on July 27 from 5:30-7:00 p.m. This community panel will focus on Juvenile and Young Adult Crime in our community and will be comprised of Shreveport Mayor Tom Arceneaux, Caddo Sheriff Steve Prator, Shreveport Police Chief Wayne Smith and Caddo Parish Director of Juvenile Services Clay Walker.
“There has to be a groundswell of people asking for solutions,” says Walker. “I think Shreveport is a place that can do it. I think it’s one of the few places that can come together on this.”
It has to.
Contact Harriet at email@example.com