Brawl that left teen’s jaw broken points to hard-to-shake culture at now-closed Jetson

The dispute spawned over some stolen candy.

Because no one would admit to the misdeed, all the boys inside one of the dormitories at Jetson Center for Youth near Baker crowded into a bathroom. It was the only unmonitored spot in the dorm where video cameras couldn’t record their squabbles.

The lone guard assigned to the dorm helped organize the gathering, according to a state investigation into the incident, eventually joining the juvenile convicts inside the bathroom for an old-fashioned conflict resolution event where — at least in this case — problems could be hashed out one slug at a time.

The incident, which led to a teen’s broken jaw, sheds some light on the environment at Jetson prior to its closure. It represents a hard-to-shake culture in stark contrast to the constructive rehabilitative methods that for years state officials have touted as the future of juvenile corrections in Louisiana.

In this particular case, the teens crowded into the bathroom with the Jetson guard’s blessing because the boy who had the snacks stolen from his locker wanted a fight. And after a lengthy discussion among the dormmates, one boy, then 17, stepped up to the challenge.

It wasn’t long before a punch landed squarely with a crack.

“When I felt the shift … I shook my head and I spit out a whole bunch of blood,” said Kianta Edwards, now 18, who agreed to fight the youth claiming his candy had been stolen. “I knew I was messed up.”

The punch broke Edwards’ jaw, although he didn’t realize it initially. He also was unaware that he was about to be shipped to Monroe, where he would serve out the remainder of his one-year sentence for being present during an attempted armed robbery.

Jetson was about to close.

The highest-ranking official of the state’s juvenile corrections agency described the fight as an aberration from the norm at Jetson, adding that the incident did not contribute to the decision to close the facility in the middle of the night in late January.

But according to an official inquiry into the incident by the Office of Juvenile Justice, which oversees juvenile corrections in the state, similar gatherings in the Spring Dorm bathroom such as the one that led to the broken jaw happened at least several times.

They happened often enough, in fact, that the dorm had an official name for such a get-together: “rec call.”

Peter Dudley, an attorney who represents Edwards but who did not identify any juveniles by name, said it appears based on his research that rec calls involved shepherding the youths into a bathroom during conflicts and allowing them “to basically duke it out. And whoever walks out first is right.”

Kianta Edwards’ mother, Natalie Edwards, sued on her son’s behalf, claiming that the guard, Nathan Lawson, and the Office of Juvenile Justice were negligent in allowing the bathroom gatherings to occur.

“This bathroom meeting was not unique but rather was part of a widespread practice tolerated and indeed actively encouraged by the staff at the facility,” the suit says.

In interviews conducted by a state investigator two months after the fight, other youths who witnessed it corroborated the suit’s claims, detailing in separate interviews what a “rec call” entailed, according to an official investigative report.

One dorm inhabitant present during the fight told an investigator that Lawson herded the youths into the bathroom as a problem-solving exercise on at least two previous occasions.

“But this was the first time anyone ever really got into a fight,” the youth told the investigator. “The other times everyone just talked about what they were going to do.”

In an interview, Mary Livers, deputy secretary of the Office of Juvenile Justice, said such gatherings were in clear violation of the agency’s policy.

“One event like that is very concerning,” Livers said.

However, she disputed any suggestion that such bathroom gatherings were commonplace. “I have no knowledge of this happening as a continuous pattern,” Livers said.

She also said the timing of the fight in which Edwards’ jaw was broken — 10 days before Jetson’s closure — was coincidental. Despite the fact that another youth inmate also suffered a broken jaw in the weeks leading up to the closure, Livers said the injuries did not factor into the shutdown. Officials say it was closed because the facility itself was not conducive to therapeutic treatment.

Lawson, the 37-year-old guard accused of abetting the sparring match on Jan. 16, quit his job in March only several months after being hired by the state as a probationary-level juvenile justice specialist, according to his personnel records, though he had unofficially been out of the job since Jetson closed. His resignation came about two weeks before the state investigator interviewed the youths involved in the fight in which Edwards was injured.

Immediately after Edwards received the crushing blow to the left side of his jaw, the teen thought he could keep fighting. But he soon realized he had been smacked with a high-quality lick.

He stepped away from the fight to look into a mirror. In his reflection, he saw bone. A tooth was missing, too.

Edwards told Lawson to notify the other staff, but the guard hesitated. The guard cursed and shook his head, Edwards said.

“He was like, ‘We can never do this again,’ ” Edwards said.

And they didn’t. A little more than a week later, after the first of Edwards’ three jaw surgeries to repair mandibular fractures, authorities showed up to his dorm with handcuffs and shackles. Edwards was playing cards at the time, he remembered, and none of the youths knew what was happening.

After waiting about 45 minutes, the shackled boys were taken outside and placed on buses. They sat Edwards next to the other kid with a broken jaw.

Edwards wore shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. The shackles chilled him. So did the drool seeping from his swollen mouth.

“Cold wasn’t the word for it: I was frozen,” he said.

He spent the next few months recovering in the infirmary at Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe. He underwent two additional surgeries because the first one was botched, doctors told him, and he spent at least a month with his jaw wired shut.

After his release earlier this month, he quickly found a job in a warehouse in Baton Rouge. He says he’s applying to colleges and hopes he can escape the city that sucked him into a childhood of trouble-making.

“This wasn’t my year,” Edwards said. “I’m ready for this year to be over.”

Advocate staff writer Jim Mustian contributed to this article.

Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter @_BenWallace.