Pressley Ridge: a bridge or a precipice?

Three Pressley Ridge students must decide what kind of futures they want for themselves. Unfortunately, even a good opportunity can be fraught with disappointment.

Doug Francourt stands at the front of the classroom with the light green walls. He is 27, fresh out of a graduate program that trained him to counsel children with mental-health problems, and the floor is now his.

"What," Mr. Francourt asks the students, "are you most critical of yourself about?"

Every day, after lunch, he has a new topic that's meant to encourage discussion in the reintegration room, where Pressley Ridge students prepare to leave the school for troubled youth and return to their communities. These half-hour talks are just as big a part of the curriculum as math and grammar. Mr. Francourt, who has been at Pressley Ridge for only six months, has to coax honesty out of kids whose walls are constantly being fortified.

He never knows which child it will be on which day, but even Kurtis Haddock has opened up. About his older brothers -- Squeak, who died three years ago, and James, who could be in prison for the rest of his life. About Kurtis' tenuous existence in Homewood.

On this May afternoon, spring has finally arrived. And Kurtis, who is counting down the days until summer, isn't thinking very deeply.

Critical? Well, Kurtis says that he wishes he was better at talking to girls, which, knowing him, is pretty hard to believe.

After a meandering start to the conversation, one of the boys volunteers that "I've always had a temper ..." OK, now they're getting somewhere.

The mood will turn darker.

About this series
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette received permission from the parents or guardians of three students to follow their progress at Pressley Ridge Day School, a program for children with mental health and behavioral problems. Reporter J. Brady McCollough spent 11 months learning about their lives and the challenges they have faced and continue to confront as their high school days quickly slip away.

"I believe in death," the boy says. "The only guarantee in life is death."

"It's going to happen," Mr. Francourt says, "but you also have the choice to live every day. Isn't there a lot of good that can happen too?"

"I've been alive for 16 years," the boy says, "and not one good thing has ever happened to me."

Kurtis is now uncomfortable. This isn't helping. He quietly gets up from his seat and turns to a mirror in the back of the room, which conceals an observation room for staff. He flexes his tight, budding muscles, eyeing his reflection. What he sees, only he knows.

"I'm turning into something that people don't want me to turn into," his classmate continues. "I'm guaranteed to die. It's all I think about."

Kurtis sits back down. He grabs a small bouncy ball and begins throwing it against the wall to his left. He desperately wants to leave this school. He's already missed so much.

The discussion period has ended for the day, and Kurtis' teacher, James Davis, tells him to stop bouncing the ball.

"Leave me the [expletive] alone!" Kurtis yells. "I'm going to do my work! Just getting some ball time!"

Mr. Francourt believes in Kurtis, overlooks the never-ending stream of curse words, the hard outer shell. He can see Kurtis coming back to Pressley in 10 years, a young man on the right track, apologizing for how he used to behave. If Mr. Francourt didn't believe, he wouldn't be here.

"They've created their defense mechanisms to help them cope with their situations," Mr. Francourt says. "They didn't do it on purpose. They're not innately disrespectful or distrustful. It's just how they've turned out."

Hatching an exit plan

Real change had teased Kurtis all year, but maybe this would be it. He had applied for admittance to the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps at Perry Traditional Academy. If he got in, he wouldn't have to go to his Homewood school, Westinghouse, where he'd surely find his way into mischief. It would solve so many problems.

But, Kurtis, a cadet?

"What are my triggers?" Kurtis asked himself one day. "See, if you were to be standing up and I were sitting down, I'll tell you, you are a little too close. I need three feet, and if you say that's weird, I'm going to get angry, I'm going to let you know that, if you don't move, there's going to be a problem. If you're going to come over and tell me something, sit down! You standing up ... it makes me nervous. I don't like it."

Which, for Kurtis, was a roundabout way of getting to the heart of the matter:

"I can't trust people," he said. "It's hard for me to trust people. My parents were there for me. I just have problems trusting people, and it's sad, because there are some pretty good people that I haven't given a chance to because I don't trust people."

He does not trust because his older brother, Squeak, was killed by a man who was supposedly his friend. He does not trust individuals, yet he's capable, when in a good mood, of holding a room full of strangers in the palm of his hand.

It had always been this way. Good Kurtis and Bad Kurtis, inhabiting the same space, fighting a turf war for power over his decisions. Good Kurtis, the churchgoing son of Carol Speaks-Haddock, cleaning up dog droppings in the neighbor's yard, walking old ladies across the street, carrying their groceries. Bad Kurtis, cursing like a sailor, bullying his classmates, merrily outrunning his teachers until the bell rang.

When he was baptized, his mother told him before the big dunk, "You little demon! They're going to put you in there and the water's going to start to boil!"

When Kurtis was born, Squeak was 25. Carol knew more about parenting at 42 than she did at 17, but it was not much use. No matter how much she read to him, tried to treat him like a child, Kurtis' interactions were mostly with adults, and he saw himself that way. When he arrived at Pressley Ridge, he was described as a 12-year-old who acted 25.

Kurtis was on his teachers' level, so that's why it was so important to him that they literally remained on his level. Or else.

Really, Kurtis, a cadet?

"I want to go to the Marines," he said.

Kurtis' mother wanted so badly for him to be admitted to the JROTC. He could try out for basketball at Perry, too. Still, she didn't like the sound of the Marines, this idea that he wanted the chance to legally shoot a gun.

But this was her Kurtis, a child who preferred coffee over juice, a boy who was deathly afraid of snakes but not death itself.

"I wouldn't mind dying," Kurtis said. "What's the bad side to dying?"

A calming experience

Dante Yobst knew that he had to improve if he wanted to make the Brashear High basketball team. At Pressley Ridge, he had played in the post, but on a normal team, with bigger kids, he would likely see more time at guard. One day during the spring, Dante spent six hours at his local court in Sheraden, dribbling only with his left hand.

Six hours! Years ago, his mother and grandmother wouldn't have believed him capable of concentrating on any one thing for six minutes. You should have seen them on those camping trips, trying to teach Dante to fish. He couldn't sit with the line in the water, enjoying the peace and tranquility. The bait would barely make its plunge before Dante was yanking it out of there, reeling it in just so he could toss another fruitless attempt. Dante's only hope was an equally impatient fish.

At night, there was no calming him. Somehow, they figured out that if you blared loud music in his room, he'd eventually go to sleep. Silence only made his mind work overtime.

He would have these wild outbursts. You didn't know whether he was going to run out of the house or barricade himself in his room, tearing it apart.

Still, the incident that landed him at Pressley Ridge with a bipolar diagnosis, that fight at Perry, didn't seem like something he would do. Dante was a sweet child, at heart. He just couldn't handle much, especially when his mother would bring a new man into their lives.

Dante's father had not been a consistent presence since he was a small child. Tracy Yobst was mom and pop, and Dante appreciated all that she did for him and his three siblings, working those night shifts on the cleaning staff at Nordstrom. But these men, some of them just weren't treating her right. One of them robbed her blind, stole her car in the middle of the night.

Maybe it shouldn't have been that shocking when Dante and his friends charged thousands of dollars on Tracy's credit card buying video games. She needed that money, and she didn't know what else to do but send him to Shuman Juvenile Detention Center. He stayed for a few days before she relented and brought him home.

He'd never steal from her again. Pressley Ridge had helped him, all of that medication creating the right chemical balance. Dante's grades were good, although she never saw him doing any homework. Tracy knew it wasn't like a regular school, that he wasn't functioning in real society.

But that spring afternoon, as he dribbled the day away, he was ready to make his comeback. The end of his junior year was nearing, and he told the staffers at Pressley that he wanted to start his senior year at Brashear.

It wasn't that they doubted his intent. It was just ... Dante had been sending mixed signals about reintegrating for so long, and Pressley Ridge had been so good for him.

Giving blood, moving forward

The nice folks at Pressley Ridge had it all lined up for Sha'Ron Williams. His graduation was less than a month away, and, to his credit, he was saying all of the right things. He wanted to get a job and change his life, and here they had made it so easy for him.

All he had to do was enroll during the summer at the Dean Institute of Technology, a trade school. He'd already been accepted. In 18 months, he could be a welder, and then he could help his grandmother, Jeri Williams, with all those bills.

But Sha'Ron's mind struggled to work in that logical way. It was hard to think much about tomorrow when today hurt so badly. Eighteen months? In Sha'Ron time, that was an eternity. It was almost unfair: The average 18-year-old can go to a four-year college, maybe even a graduate school, delaying adult decisions as long as possible, but a rudderless teenager like Sha'Ron had to choose what he wanted for the rest of his life?

No, as it turned out, this was not easy for Sha'Ron, whose self-worth was now entirely wrapped up in the fates of others. He had never done much for himself. As a child, he was Grandma's little helper. The family didn't like to talk about what had befallen Sha'Ron's mother, but, even living under the same roof in McKees Rocks, she wasn't much help. His father was good-hearted but couldn't stay out of trouble.

Sha'Ron had his grandma, his twin sister and brother and all of his neighborhood friends. As he grew up, he found an endless reservoir of energy in their happiness.

"If I'm not smiling," Sha'Ron would say, "I want someone else to smile so I can try to smile."

Sha'Ron took pride in his class-clowning. It was cute then. Samye, his twin, would hear about his antics from mutual friends. There was nothing Sha'Ron wouldn't do for a laugh.

At Sto-Rox High School, while the stakes of his decisions rose, his mind-set remained the same. If his friends were in trouble, or needed some help, he would be there, always. And when tragedy inevitably struck, it was Sha'Ron who would take it the hardest, blaming himself.

"I can't stay happy," he would say, "because of the lost ones."

There was Scott King, his friend who was shot and killed June 15, 2012, in a drug-related robbery. King, 19, was found slumped over the wheel of a Toyota sedan in a McKees Rocks alley.

Sha'Ron would get a large tattoo memorializing his friend on his right arm, guaranteeing he would never forget his pain.

"I push so many people away from me," Sha'Ron would say, "because everybody that's close to me dies."

Nobody understood better than Sha'Ron the fragility of life. His decision for a senior project -- he needed to complete one to graduate -- was all too fitting. He would put on a blood drive at Pressley for the Pittsburgh Central Blood Bank.

With the assistance and prodding of several Pressley staffers, there was Sha'Ron, sitting by a computer on a May morning, typing in donor data and keeping track of the schedule. It wasn't the smoothest operation -- at the sight of blood, Sha'Ron ran to the bathroom to throw up -- but it proved that he could get the job done.

The blood bank was so impressed with Sha'Ron's project that they offered him a $3,000 scholarship. Combined with various forms of financial aid, that would allow Sha'Ron to attend Dean Tech basically for free.

Sha'Ron's family liaison specialist, Robert Visk, would make sure that Sha'Ron knew how amazing this was. He started planning a celebration for Sha'Ron that would be held sometime in July, at the school, with Pressley and blood bank management.

Walking with good humor

B.B. Flenory checked his watch. Where was Sha'Ron? Graduation was set to begin at 5 p.m., but as of 4:45, Sha'Ron still hadn't made it.

Nineteen kids would walk that day, and Sha'Ron would be one of them, riding up that steep incline one more time around 4:48. He strutted to the front door, sporting a blue cap and gown and sunglasses, which he also would wear throughout the ceremony.

In the gym where he had once made jumpers and complained about Flenory's officiating, Pressley Ridge president Susanne Cole delivered the opening remarks.

"You can make a difference in the lives of others," she said. "Your task now is to do something in life that you love, that you can look back on and be proud of. Today is the first step of that process."

A video had been prepared, featuring interviews with each of the 2013 graduates.

Sha'Ron, what did you like best about your time at Pressley Ridge?

"Playing for the basketball team," he said.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

"In the NBA!" he said, and laughter filled the gym.

Opportunity knocks

The teachers and staff at Pressley Ridge fear the summer. So much can happen in those two months -- or not happen. One staffer, family liaison Darlene Malsch, watches the news every morning at 6 and each night at 10, hoping not to hear any familiar names.

In July, as Sha'Ron's scholarship luncheon approached, Robert Visk was in contact with him and his grandmother, making sure they knew all the details. But only one should have mattered -- $3,000!

Thomas Conley, the school's program director, was going to be there, along with employees from the blood bank. Like always, Pressley wanted it to feel special, affirming. Mr. Visk would have been elated for the same award if it came to one of his two sons at home, but, for a kid like Sha'Ron, it didn't get any bigger.

"He had the whole world in the palm of his hand," Mr. Visk said. "An opportunity of a lifetime."

Mr. Visk was going to be on vacation with his family that week, so he was willing to arrange transportation to the school for Sha'Ron. His grandmother said she would get him there at the right time. Only, she happened to go out of town, too. It was now up to Sha'Ron to come accept the money.

But on that summer day, as his supporters gathered at the school at the top of the hill, Sha'Ron was nowhere to be found. They tried calling his cell phone, over and over, but he wouldn't answer.

The luncheon was called off, and that $3,000 would go to a student who actually wanted it.

Read Part 1: At Pressley Ridge, 'Life unfolds minute by minute' (Dec. 26)

Read Part 2: At Pressley Ridge, bumps in the road (Dec. 27)

Read Part 4: 'Fighting to live, living to fight' at Pressley Ridge (Dec. 29)

J. Brady McCollough: and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.

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