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A 13-year-old's empty bedroom, a mother's grief; Baton Rouge violence is claiming younger lives

The Advocate - 4/10/2023

Apr. 10—More than two months after his death, Monique Jones still refuses to enter her youngest son's bedroom.

"I'm just so used to him being here," she said. "I'm not ready. I want to leave it the way it is for a while."

Keddrick Turner was 13 when he was shot Jan. 26 while sitting in a car with a group of teenagers on Sharon Hills Boulevard, authorities say. He was rushed to a hospital but declared dead four days later.

Now, Jones struggles to make sense of her son's short life and tragic death as she tries to piece together exactly what went wrong.

Nicknamed "Smiley" because of his infectious grin, Keddrick may have been the youngest of her five children, but he was easily the most independent, Jones recalled, always insisting he could keep up with his older brothers and sisters. From the time he could walk, he had endless energy that seemed, at times, almost impossible to contain.

"He was like hell on wheels, all over the place," Jones said.

That energy sometimes landed the lively 6th grader in hot water. Keddrick, who was diagnosed with ADHD when he was in the 4th grade, often ran into trouble, both in school and at home.

"He just had a short attention span. If it was something he wasn't interested in, he was going to find everything to do that he wasn't supposed to be doing," his mother said, recalling a time when Keddrick was reprimanded for sneaking away from a class aide to change the numbers on his school's scoreboard.

Even still, Keddrick "was the happiest child I've ever seen in my life," she continued. "He could be getting in trouble and he'd just be smiling."

As Keddrick grew older, Jones, who often works evenings as a waitress, said her son would push the envelope, sneaking out to ride his bike to other neighborhoods and staying out past curfew. It wasn't long before Keddrick began to run into legal trouble. Months before his death, he was arrested a second time, this time by the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office for stealing a four-wheeler from another boy.

At first, Jones refused to bail him out, hoping that forcing him to sit in a juvenile detention center for two months would scare him into better behavior.

"I just really tried to put it in him that there was nothing for him in the streets," she said. "I was like, 'I'd rather see you in jail than dead.'"

It seemed to help. For a bit.

After he was released from the juvenile detention center, Keddrick began classes at EBR Readiness, an alternative school. Not long after his first day, however, Jones received a call from someone with the district asking her to keep Keddrick home. The owner of the four-wheeler was also a student there, Jones said, and faculty wanted to avoid a possible confrontation between the two boys.

Keddrick was temporarily pulled out of class and put in online school as Jones desperately looked for another solution for her son.

He was shot days later.

Sageda Mason, a family friend and mentor to Keddrick, collapsed when she learned what happened.

"I just saw a kid full of exploration, adventure, who wanted to feel loved and not just written off," Mason said.

She described Keddrick as "so tiny, but in his mind, he was so big. He thought he could do it all."

A week after Keddrick's death, the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office arrested a 17-year-old in his case. A public hearing is set for April 19.

Violent crime among youth increasing

Keddrick's story is far from unique, with cities throughout the U.S. reporting upticks in juvenile crime in recent years.

Such is the case in Baton Rouge, where police chief Murphy Paul said his department is seeing more and more kids booked on various offenses. Though earlier numbers weren't immediately available, BRPD arrested 488 juveniles in 2022, including 13 accused of homicide. As of March 23, Paul said, the department had made 91 juvenile arrests.

Paul's assertion is backed by East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III, who said that as a whole, the parish is seeing a steady rise in youth being arrested and charged as adults for violent crimes.

Over the last four years, the number of teens tried as adults for murder, attempted murder or armed robbery increased threefold, going from six in 2018 to 18 in 2022, with a temporary dip in 2020 during the pandemic lockdowns, according to data from the District Attorney's Office.

So far this year, Moore said, seven youths have been arrested and charged as adults in East Baton Rouge, already putting the parish on track to surpass last year's record.

And not only are more youth engaging in crime, they're also increasingly becoming victims of it. According to federal data, homicide is the third leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24 in the U.S.

The increase in violence affecting Baton Rouge youth comes even as overall homicides ebbed in 2022, down from a record high in 2021.

Many community advocates say the rise is indicative of the mounting stress today's kids are under, particularly following years of COVID lockdowns and economic turmoil.

Assistant District Attorney Aishala Burgess, who serves as executive director of the local violence prevention nonprofit Truce, said many of the children and teens she works with often talk about the insurmountable pressures they face, both at home and at school.

"In their words, they're in survival mode," she said. "There's a lack of resources, there's socioeconomic status. Some have parents who are incarcerated, so they're figuring out how to navigate life on their own terms."

A lack of resources

Jones believes that if her son had more after-school options to choose from, he may have had a safer and more productive outlet to channel his relentless energy. When she was a teen growing up in Baton Rouge, she said, such programs not only kept kids busy, but also helped foster a sense of community.

"We had a lot of stuff we could do after school besides being in the street," she said. "Keddrick's generation, there's nothing for them to do."

Gaylynne Mack, with the Big Buddy Program and the Baton Rouge Area Youth Network — which was formed in 2021 as a way for the parish's youth programs to coordinate their activities and resources to make them more accessible to families — agreed.

"There are not enough programs, especially in areas that have been traditionally underserved," she said.

Since he was appointed BRPD chief in 2018, Paul has been an advocate for community-led solutions to combating crime, pointing to research that suggests youth programs in particular can reduce delinquent behavior and decrease recidivism rates among juveniles.

During his tenure, the department has introduced, reintroduced or helped support a number of local and national programs aimed at fostering community development, including the Explorer Program, which gives teens ages 14 through 18 the opportunity to learn more about the work first responders do, and weekly community walks aimed at building positive relationships between law enforcement officers and civilians.

"We know that when our youth are engaged, when they are involved in activities, there are positive consequences from that," Paul said.

Despite efforts by programs like BRAYN to make the parish's youth programs more accessible, some households still struggle to utilize existing resources.

Several advocates say a multitude of barriers, but most particularly a lack of convenient transportation, means that not every family is able to reap the benefits of certain programs.

"A lot of our organizations that are doing really good work are limited on resources to expand," Aishala Burgess said. "Some of them would probably love to provide transportation assistance; they just may not have the funding to make that happen."

Hope for the future

For Sageda Mason, a teacher who also lost her brother when he was shot and killed by a teenager in 2021, improving outcomes for at-risk youth is now a life mission.

As an educator, Mason said, she's seen firsthand a positive impact from keeping kids engaged and fostering their individual interests.

"I want to spend my life making sure things like this happen for fewer kids. A lot of times when kids have disciplinary issues, they're labeled," she said. "Kids are products of their environment, and I truly believe that. Even when they know what they're doing, they don't understand the gravity, the impact."

She added: "I feel sorrow not just for Keddrick, but for so many other kids like him."

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