From gang to graduate

COSTA MESA — Some people didn't recognize her when she returned to Costa Mesa High School in September to start her senior year.

She dressed differently and dropped the attitude. She no longer took pride in having her peers fear her. She changed her speech and traded in her gang membership for spots on the school's soccer and business academy teams.

But all that wasn't an easy transformation for the 17-year-old girl, who the Daily Pilot is not identifying because of her criminal record. It took a stint in juvenile hall to make her change her ways. Now, troubled times behind her, the reformed teen graduated Thursday with her fellow seniors from around the Newport-Mesa district.

"I needed something to make me think … if it wasn't for this I probably would still be in involved with gangs, or have got shot or arrested," she said. "I just feel really lucky because God gave me a second chance."


To juvenile hall and back

She was angry.

A rival gang member had "disrespected" her in front of her little sister. Barely 16, she was already known as a member of a Costa Mesa gang.

In a haze of rage, she changed into a white T-shirt and grabbed a butter knife from the kitchen.

She went to find the girl.

Once she found her, she grabbed her by the hair and started the fight. Eventually she pulled the knife out of a back pocket and slashed the girl, continuing to fight as blood dripped onto her arm and stained her shirt, she recalled in an interview.

When she got home, she knew she was going to be arrested. But she didn't care. Instead, she boasted about it.

"I started writing on MySpace, 'I'm getting arrested. Write to me,'" she said. "I was proud of it."

She was still filled with pride as police arrested her at her home and, later on, as she watched her parents crying at the station.

It wasn't until she was sitting alone in her room in juvenile hall that the gravity of the situation overwhelmed her.

Alone, she became depressed, refused to eat, and the tears started coming. It was then that she repented for all of the choices she had made.

"I'd have those flashbacks, like bang, bang, of all those mistakes I've made and I would say, 'Why would I want to be a follower? Why didn't I just do my own thing?'"

Something told her to change and get her life together.

She started with taking responsibility for what she had done and pleaded guilty to felony fighting with a deadly weapon, gang terrorism and involvement with gangs, which led to a six-month sentence in a juvenile detention center.

She ended up doing nearly a year in several different facilities, but she used the time to begin her transformation. She dropped the attitude, kept her head down and avoided getting in trouble.

When asked which neighborhood she was from, she would reply that she wasn't from anywhere.

"I didn't want to have problems with no one," she said. "I was done with that."

She started praying to change, but it wasn't enough. She needed to take action.

So the teenager started practicing her speech to get rid of her attitude and cursing. She attended church and counseling, and didn't miss school.

The realizations of what she had done kept sinking in deeper.

"Just because of that fight, because I wanted to look good, look where it took me?" she asked. "I was arrested, being on probation, being away from my family. That's what made me think, why am I doing this? It hit me hard."


'If it happens, it happens'

Her problems started in elementary school. She wasn't ditching yet, but she had her "tricks," she said.

Everything escalated in sixth grade, when she stopped doing her schoolwork. She couldn't care less about grades and had a big attitude.

She wanted attention, and she found the best way to get it was by being bad. She wanted to intimidate her peers. It made her feel cool.

By eighth grade, she was tagging, hanging out with gang members and fighting.

"I started getting into fights a lot, like a lot. Like that was my thing. I just loved getting into fights," she recalled. "I was the crazy one. I was the one they would call to jump this girl."

She got in trouble more often, getting suspended and having her mom called to the office nearly every day.

She was in and out of high schools — but that was a source of pride for the teen.

"I just liked the way they used to talk. They would be like, '[She] got kicked out because of this, that. Damn, she's crazy,'" she said. "That was a good feeling for me."

She never saw herself graduating. The road before her held only the promise of getting pregnant, living with her parents, working at Jack in the Box or babysitting.

"I used to think that was the only way," she said. "If it happens, it happens."


'This is the new me'

Freedom was her greatest gift. That, and a second chance.

Although she had been working on making a change, doing it in custody was a lot different than being back in her old stomping grounds.

Back at home, she was scared she would fall back into her old ways, but didn't give up.

To change her appearance, she swapped out her "gang" clothes for something more feminine. But her tattoos were permanent. She wished she could remove them.

She then returned to Costa Mesa High School, and now because of how hard she worked in custody, she was on track to start her senior year.

To help her stay out of trouble, she got involved, adding the business academy and soccer team on top of her study schedule. She earned a spot as the goalkeeper.

She even made Principal's Honor Roll, was named Student of the Month and won several awards — her first ever.

Her father, Werte, noticed how different she was.

"I told her, 'You've changed a lot now,'" he said.

She apologized to her old teachers and has taken ownership of the decisions she made, said Costa Mesa Middle School teacher Anna Wooten, who knew her in seventh grade.

Wooten said the girl is one of the few students who really looks at her life and thinks deeply about the choices she's made and where they led her.

"She's really taken the time to put in a lot of thought and analyze the choices she's made," Wooten said. "I think a lot of people, considering the experiences she's had, could have taken a totally different pathway and not have seen any light and recovered from that."

The teen has learned from her past and is looking toward the future. She plans to study cosmetology at Golden West College in Huntington Beach. She knows that the schoolwork and finding the money to pay for her training won't be easy.

But after everything she's already been through, the 17-year-old feels ready for what life will throw at her next.

She can't wait to come back a success.

"I want to come back to Ms. Wooten, to all the teachers in the school, and show them my certificate of cosmetology," she said, "and say, 'Look, I made it. The bad girl that was always in the security office went away. This is the new me.'"

—Staff writer Lauren Williams contributed to this report.

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