The school at the top of the hill turns its back on no one. The road there is dark, passing the edge of a vast and wooded cemetery that hugs the campus grounds. Thousands of tombstones dot the landscape, stark reminders of what can go wrong if the right lessons aren't learned.
On its best days, Pressley Ridge Day School, hidden in a nook on Pittsburgh's North Side, is a beacon of light. Educators at the state and district level know that Pressley will take each child delivered to its doorstep, and those children have arrived there for one crushing reason or another. It is their last resort. There is nowhere else to go.
No child believes deep down that he or she belongs at Pressley Ridge. Kurtis Haddock, Dante Yobst and Sha'Ron Williams surely didn't. Three distinct journeys, from Homewood, Sheraden and McKees Rocks, respectively, led them through Allegheny County's labyrinthine roads, tunnels and bridges and up the hill that rises just 3 miles from Downtown.
Kurtis was first, in September 2010, a bright and eager 12-year-old with a host of mental-health diagnoses and behaviors that Pittsburgh Public Schools could tolerate no longer. With Kurtis, his exit came to a slow boil; it was anybody's guess when the explosion was coming. A look at the fates of two of his older brothers offered a chilling preview -- one dead, one in prison -- and now Kurtis, the precocious caboose of five siblings, stood alone with the future of a distressed family sitting on his bony shoulders.
Dante followed less than a year later, in May 2011, a 14-year-old shellshocked after two months at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. There, he thawed out after a violent outburst against another student at Perry Traditional Academy that was so scary that Dante felt he had no choice but to have himself admitted for treatment. Dante often looked sad, even when he was happy, and that was usually when he was playing sports.
Sha'Ron's grandmother dragged him to Pressley in March 2012. He was 17, a junior, nearly done with school -- or, in his mind, the act of pretending to care about school so the adults would just leave him alone. Sto-Rox High School told Sha'Ron he could not finish his education there, and so he had no interest in continuing the charade elsewhere. He thought going to Pressley was a stupid idea. He would have rather dropped out and succumbed fully to the same streets as his growing list of fallen friends.
Early in the boys' days at Pressley, staff members went about discovering what activities brought them joy. Each of them expressed their passion for playing sports, especially basketball, and each soon would be introduced to a middle-aged man named Baron "B.B." Flenory.
A former star college basketball player at Duquesne University in the late 1970s, Mr. Flenory had started a basketball program at Pressley Ridge about a decade ago.
Kurtis and Dante had already donned the red and white of the Pressley Ridge Patriots. Mr. Flenory wished he could get more time with Sha'Ron, but this would have to do. On the day they met, Mr. Flenory fed Sha'Ron the same line of trash talk he gave all the kids who thought they could play: I've never lost in one-on-one, but you can challenge my title.
A history lesson
On game days, Mr. Flenory chooses to play the role of referee, the arbiter of fairness. Wearing those zebra stripes, as silly as he may look for a 55-year-old, it puts him in control.
The season's third game is just underway, but Dante is already angry, pleading his case to Mr. Flenory during a stoppage in play. At least the kid is talking it out, not letting it fester like so many times before.
"I just want to play," Dante tells his coach. "Me sitting on the bench is only making it worse!"
The Pressley Ridge Patriots are up big on the scoreboard, but their spirits are low on this morning in early February. Dante has brought frustrations from home to school. He has aggression to release, and that can't happen from the sidelines. When Kurtis is taken out, he leaves the floor in a huff, too, blowing by coach Kenie Siebert. There's no telling how Sha'Ron would be handling this sorry excuse for a game -- the Patriots' opponent brought mostly younger kids, so they're calling this junior varsity -- if Sha'Ron weren't already ineligible because of a fight with a classmate.
The boy called Sha'Ron a "bitch." Even with Sha'Ron's improved behavior during his year at Pressley, that was a trigger for a beating. Being denied basketball certainly felt like a punishment.
At halftime, the Patriots are ahead, 25-10. Snare drums rattle incessantly from the school's makeshift marching band, adding to the chaos. For Patty Folmer, who supervises all of Pressley's sports teams, this is just another day of bringing fun activities to children who could use a break from their realities.
"Life unfolds minute by minute for our kids," Ms. Folmer says.
Games are held once a week, during school hours, against other alternative schools from Western Pennsylvania. School employees, classmates and family can attend. It is meant to feel special. But sometimes it just doesn't work out, and this is one of those times. There is no competition for Pressley, and so Mr. Flenory, as referee, is simply trying to keep it from getting out of hand. To start the second half, he changes the tally on the scoreboard to 0-0.
After the game, in the Patriots' small locker room adjacent to the gym, raw emotions are flowing as Mr. Flenory enters. He doesn't always talk to them, often leaving it to Ms. Siebert, the school's 27-year-old gym teacher.
"If I could interject," says Mr. Flenory, and his deep voice settles the room.
"When we started this team 10 years ago, Pressley Ridge didn't win a game for three years. We had teams that were beating us 80-4 ... ."
"Why can't we do that?" one player asks.
"Let me finish, let me finish," says Mr. Flenory, a first-team all-state player at Valley High School and a first-team All-Atlantic 10 selection at Duquesne who now wears his muscular 6-foot-2 frame like an Average Joe who's always talking about trimming a few pounds. "We formed our own league. The reason we can't do that is we're out here learning how to play, learning teamwork. It's about the journey. It's about not killing your fellow man. We're going to learn all those things. We want you to learn humility. One day, you're going to want someone to give you a helping hand or not stomp on you.
"We didn't start this basketball program because we wanted to win world championships. We wanted to teach you guys valuable lessons in life."
This is a crucial period for many of the Patriots. Sha'Ron, who is just months from graduation, should have been here. Dante, who rarely misbehaves at Pressley, is a strong candidate to return to public school, which is the goal for most students who come to Pressley. He needs to make the decision to leave before it's too late. Kurtis, still just a freshman, is beginning to feel afraid that he'll be here forever.
Today, after Mr. Flenory's talk, Kurtis shows how far he still has to come.
"I just want to ask a question," Kurtis says. "Why are we showing these other teams mercy? They're not going to show us mercy!
"I want them to be scared."
Reason for attending Pressley: Kurtis enrolled at Pressley Ridge as a 12-year-old, seventh-grader in September 2010. He was diagnosed with depression, hyperactivity and oppositional defiant disorder. He could not control his behavior in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Background: When Kurtis was 6, his older brother James went to prison with a life sentence for shooting and killing a woman. When Kurtis was 12, his oldest brother, Charles "Squeak" Speaks, was shot and killed after a drug deal gone bad. Kurtis has both parents at home but admits he has problems trusting others.
Kurtis woke on the morning of Dec. 10, 2010, with a pain in his stomach. Something wasn't right. He walked down the stairs of his two-story home and saw his anger management therapist on the sofa. No, this wasn't right.
He could hear his mother crying. When Carol Speaks-Haddock saw her youngest son, her little Kurtie, she came into the living room.
"Did anybody tell him yet?" she asked.
Kurtis's oldest brother, 37-year-old Charles "Squeak" Speaks, had been shot in the chest and killed during the cold Homewood night.
But this moment was not the loss of innocence for the 12-year-old. After all, Squeak had mostly been in prison from the moment Kurtis was born. They would write letters back and forth. Squeak would be in and out of trouble until this last fatal mistake, resulting from a drug deal gone bad. And when Kurtis was 6, his second-oldest brother, James Haddock, went to prison with a life sentence for shooting and killing a woman. He claimed it was an accident, that he didn't intend for the gun to go off. No matter, that was the moment when Kurtis internalized his likely fate; Squeak's death only confirmed the bleak vision.
Kurtis had already enrolled earlier that fall at Pressley Ridge, a partial-treatment program for kids with mental-health and behavioral issues. At his intake -- a two-hour meeting in which an in initial evaluation is performed -- it was noted that he was eager to answer questions and provide information. He was a talker, alert, oriented, logical. He dressed neatly, and that face -- with the ears poking out, as if they'd grown just a little faster than the rest of him, and those narrow brown eyes that could pull you in like tractor beams -- well, that face just made you want to root for him.
But Kurtis had been diagnosed with depression, hyperactivity and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) -- having a predisposed problem with authority. His behaviors checked nearly all of the boxes: Violent. Fidgets. Inappropriate sexual relationships. Tantrums. Low self esteem. Feelings of worthlessness. Cries easily.
His intake over, Pressley decided they could help him. A fax would be sent to Harrisburg so the state could make it official. It costs the school districts about $45,000 to send a child to Pressley, and that money comes directly from the commonwealth. The folks in Harrisburg would never meet Kurtis Haddock, but odds are, they would have liked him.
That he was already attending Pressley Ridge when Squeak died was a small positive. His family liaison, 34-year-old Rico Dillard, came every day that week to Kurtis' home and played Madden football on the Xbox with him. It was just the right thing to do.
Reason for attending Pressley: Dante enrolled at Pressley Ridge as a 14-year-old freshman in May 2011. After beating up a classmate at Perry Traditional Academy, he was diagnosed as bipolar and depressed, with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.
Background: Dante was raised by his mother and grandmother, rarely having a consistent male presence in his life. He always struggled to focus, except on sports, which he gets to play at Pressley Ridge.
Dante couldn't stop thinking about his little brother and sister, the twin toddlers at home who needed their big brother. He couldn't leave Western Psych until the doctors were satisfied, and so his mother had been making up stories about where Dante was.
"It was confusing, frustrating, and to be honest, I was crushed," Dante says. "I had to go through that, dealing with it every day, feeling like I screwed up and made the wrong decision."
He had warned the people at Perry -- the teachers, the counselors, the principal. He was going to do something he was going to regret, so please, he asked them, do something about it.
Yes, the kid was smaller than Dante. Still, the boy felt like a bully. Dante had always been tall for his age, but his size was not something he'd ever thought of as an advantage; it was something his peers could pick on, mostly.
Other than Dante's early sprouting, he didn't stand out too much. He had stubbornly straight brown hair that had darkened from its younger, blonder days and now drooped like a mop over his forehead, nearly hiding his crystal blue eyes. Those baby blues were one of his only inviting qualities; Dante didn't give of himself. He mostly just wanted to be left alone.
But, day after day at Perry, Dante had to listen to this kid chattering in his ear. Dante, then a freshman, would be trying to do his work, in the midst of this constant bickering. Dante, Dante, Dante. Listen to me, listen to me, listen to me. One day, his patience snapped.
Dante jumped on top of the boy in the hallway. He punched him over and over. Other kids gathered around the commotion. Some witnesses said that they saw a pencil fly out of Dante's hands. The assumption was that he stabbed the boy in the neck with it. Dante denied it. He wasn't capable of using a weapon. That wasn't him.
When Dante's mother, Tracy Yobst, arrived at the school, Dante was in handcuffs. Fortunately, his therapist was there, or else they would have taken him straight to Shuman Juvenile Detention Center. Instead, Dante, knowing his days as an average teenager were now over, decided to commit himself to Western Psych.
For the next three months, as he waited for placement in a specialized school, he tried to cooperate with the doctors. They diagnosed him as bipolar, depressed, and with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and ODD, and it was decided that he should attend Pressley Ridge.
At his intake, he was quiet, somber even. His cognitive abilities were good, but he was not highly motivated. It was noted that he had tried to run away from home numerous times, that you were not to touch him, and, if he didn't like you from the first impression, he likely never would.
Reason for attending Pressley: Sha'Ron enrolled at Pressley Ridge as a 17-year-old junior in March 2012 because he was deemed a threat by administrators at Sto-Rox High School. He was diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.
Background: Sha'Ron was raised by his grandmother. His father was in and out of trouble with the law and is currently in prison for possession of a prohibited firearm. Sha'Ron started living the street life at 14 and, by the time he went to Pressley Ridge, was considering dropping out of school.
"Do you own a gun?" a Sto-Rox administrator asked Sha'Ron.
"Could you get one if you wanted to?"
Sha'Ron, already isolated in special education classes, was now officially considered a threat. He had been heading down that road for years, but mostly, he had been a threat to himself.
His wayward spiral began at 14, when he tagged along with an older friend who stole a car and led police on a high-speed chase. As the flashing lights and blaring sirens closed in, Sha'Ron's friend ordered him to jump from the moving vehicle. His body smacked the pavement and rolled.
Police called his grandmother, Jeri Williams. She had raised him, his twin sister, Samye, and older brother, Dominique, since Sha'Ron was 2, working as many hours a week as she could find at a Family Dollar store. Ms. Williams cried into the phone, knowing that Sha'Ron was lucky to be alive.
Over the next few years, it would only get worse. While Samye pursued dreams of college and playing basketball, Sha'Ron sought the street life. He sold drugs and found himself at Shuman more times than he could count. This was who he was, the guy his friends needed him to be. He was there to protect them.
Maybe it was just in his genes, his grandmother thought. His father, Wayne Hoszowski, had been in trouble with the law for most of the kids' lives. On the day that Sto-Rox decided it was time for Sha'Ron to go, Hoszowski was serving three to six years for possession of a prohibited firearm at State Correctional Institution at Somerset.
Sha'Ron immediately made clear his distaste for Pressley Ridge, but at least he was polite about it. His stubbly black beard and consistently saggy jeans said one thing; his lively brown eyes and big laugh said another.
How was he supposed to feel? He'd been a Sto-Rox Viking his whole life. All of his friends and family went there. He didn't play football anymore, but he proudly cheered the guys who did.
But, like Kurtis and Dante before him, he would be entered into the system, diagnosed ADHD and ODD. They had not yet ruled out psychotic personality disorder; it was possible Sha'Ron had been hearing voices. It was noted that he had lost several friends to violent ends, and the tremors from those tragedies were affecting him daily.
The more Mr. Flenory found out, the more he wondered whether Sha'Ron would even make it to the 2013 basketball season.
Coming Friday: Basketball as therapy: B.B. Flenory left serious basketball behind to use the game therapeutically.
J. Brady McCollough: email@example.com or on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.