'Fighting to live, living to fight' at Pressley Ridge

Pressley Ridge can do only so much to help its students. In the end, the choices they make -- and the consequences that result -- are theirs alone

Each morning, a fleet of 30 minivans covers the city, plucking the Pressley Ridge students from their homes and delivering them to school by 9. There's no predicting what their moods will be when they walk through the double doors and the metal detectors, but on this day, more than any other, you can count on smiles.

The anticipation of the first day of school can stir the soul, even at Pressley, where a happy and nervous energy moves throughout the pastel-painted bottom floor. Summer is gone, and as each child arrives, a surge of relief passes among the staff. They don't know what happened for those two months within the persistent swirl of family life, but it couldn't have been too bad, because the kids are here.

Kurtis Haddock enters, and he barrels toward Darlene Malsch, his family liaison, for a warm embrace. Ms. Malsch lives for the hugs. She got another one, back in the spring, when Kurtis approached her with a letter in hand.

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.

"Ms. Malsch, I think I got into Perry," Kurtis had said.

Now Kurtis, 15, a sophomore, is finally going to begin the reintegration process to a public school. He will start with only an eighth-period ROTC class, taking a public bus from Pressley to Perry Traditional Academy, a nearby city high school, and then returning to Pressley for his ride back to Homewood in the city's east. As Kurtis shows that he can manage that task, he will get more classes at Perry and eventually be discharged from Pressley and attend Perry full time. Now that would be cause for celebration.

Ms. Malsch is also waiting at the door for Dante Yobst, a senior who will be her student for the first time after some staff turnover. Dante, as tall and gangly as ever, walks in with a new spiky hairdo, looking as though he just rolled out of bed. His girlfriend must like it. Yes, Dante has a girlfriend now. All summer, he'd sign his text messages with her name and a heart symbol. She goes to Brashear, a city high school in Beechview, where he wants to go, so it seems too good to be true.

"Dante, you're mine," Ms. Malsch says brightly. "You going to do this? You going to go back?"

Dante says yes, but, truthfully, he is having second thoughts. He didn't hear from anybody at Pressley over the summer, which was frustrating. He assumed he'd be reintegrating from day one. Plus, he's gotten some bad social media vibes from kids at Brashear about just how welcome he would be there. But he stays quiet about his doubts for now. After all, it's the first day of school.

This year, Kurtis and Dante will be in the same classroom. They walk there together, their arms around each other's shoulders, a point guard and his big man seemingly in perfect sync, on their way out of here.

Homewood justice

Cornelius Swinton was at the wrong place at the wrong time late on the morning of Sept. 4. A 92-year-old jitney driver, Mr. Swinton was parked with a passenger along the 800 block of North Murtland Street in Homewood.

Jason Haddock, Kurtis' older brother by 10 years, happened to be on the lookout for this passenger. The man was part of a group that had been harassing the Haddock family since the summer. Several times, the group had fired their guns at the home of Jason and Kurtis' older sister, Na-Kea, into the living room where Na-Kea's young sons played.

It had all started because of an earlier fight between young men from different parts of Homewood, and Jason was fed up. He wasn't a man who believed in street justice. He was Kurtis' only brother who had never been incarcerated, someone for him to emulate.

But when Jason saw that man in the passenger's seat of the jitney, rage overran logic. He walked toward the parked car, pulled out his gun in broad daylight and popped off nine shots. Six of them hit the driver's side, three of them the passenger's. Mr. Swinton took three of those shots to the neck, shoulder and hand. None hit the passenger.

When police found Jason Haddock, he told them the truth, that he hadn't meant to shoot Mr. Swinton. He felt horrible about it. He was going for the other guy, who had previously shot up his sister's house.

The old man was taken to the hospital. He would survive. The passenger would remain at large.

Tears for Anton

Less than two weeks had passed, and it was happening again, only worse. Carol Speaks-Haddock didn't know what else to do but leave her recurring nightmare, the ugly crime scene outside Na-Kea's house in Homewood, and drive back home to wake up her youngest son.

It was a lonely ride. She had brought Anton Smith into her family, and Na-Kea had adopted him, raised him to have dreams. He was an aspiring rapper. Check out his YouTube page. He was talented. Now, the 19-year-old was simply another teenager lost to these senseless streets.

But this was Carol's life. Her Jason had been charged with criminal attempted homicide, aggravated assault and possession of a prohibited firearm after the jitney incident. There was still her Kurtie, and he had to know what could happen. She had to show him, before it was too late.

Kurtis was Anton's uncle, officially. But really they were like close friends. Kurtis also wanted to be a rapper.

His mother woke Kurtis, took him in her big, gray SUV to Na-Kea's. Kurtis inched close enough to see Anton lying there, pierced with 17 bullet holes.

This time, Kurtis didn't scream as he did when his big brother had died three years ago. He just stared coldly ahead, silently, as tears fell down his cheeks.

Is he next?

Darlene Malsch heard about the Homewood shooting on the morning news, but she didn't know that Anton Smith was a part of Kurtis' family. She discovered that when Carol texted her.

"My grandson was killed last night," Carol said. "Kurtis won't be in."

Yet, there he was, getting out of that minivan at Pressley hours later, in desperate need of one of Ms. Malsch's hugs.

"Why are you here?" Ms. Malsch asked him.

Kurtis feared for his safety in Homewood. Anton's murder had to be retaliation for Jason shooting the jitney driver, and Kurtis' family was naturally worried that he could be next.

"He doesn't know where to be," Ms. Malsch would say. "Nowhere feels good."

But Pressley Ridge couldn't make it better. Ms. Malsch drove Kurtis back to Homewood. Heartbroken, she could only hope that Anton's death would not undo everything.

Staying put

Darlene Malsch wasn't shooting for the moon. She just wanted Dante to try something at Brashear. How about going to homecoming? That would be fun.

She sat in his Sheraden home with him and his mother, Tracy Yobst, laying out the positives of reintegration. They weren't academic, with Dante being a senior. They were social. He could ease the climb back, taking those first uncomfortable steps into the real world at whatever pace he would like.

Tracy saw the benefit, but Dante had closed himself off. He didn't want to be spending half a day at Pressley and half at Brashear. He blamed Pressley for not setting it up during the summer, although Pressley staffers would counter that Dante was constantly changing his mind. The anxiety that came with returning to public school, the site of his worst moment, was too strong.

So, it was over -- the dream he'd spoken of, playing basketball for a real high school, the faint possibility of earning a college scholarship. Predictably, his behavior regressed. He would have more outbursts in class, flipping his desk when something didn't go his way. For months he had complained that he didn't belong at Pressley; now he was showing staff that he did.

"He's Peter Pan," one Pressley staffer remarked.

Dante was in the dumps. You'd talk to him, and he'd keep his head down, mumbling responses. You'd shake his hand and feel no squeeze. He was sleepy all of the time and didn't know why.

You saw Kurtis making the jump back to public school, and it was easy to question why Dante didn't follow through. But maybe you weren't seeing the big picture.

"I don't think Kurtis is any more courageous than Dante is," said B.B. Flenory, Pressley's basketball coach. "You make the decision that's best for you."

Sha'Ron's choice

Pressley Ridge staffers who love Sha'Ron Williams have not heard from him. If they could see him now, in mid-November, sitting on the sofa at his grandmother's house filling out another job application, how would they feel?

Sha'Ron has applied all over. He got one bite at Aeropostale but didn't hear back. This is not what he wanted. His grandmother is still footing the bills alone, and his twin sister is off at Penn State University-Altoona, walking proof that his upbringing can produce success.

Sha'Ron had his chance, of course. With his senior project, he had earned a $3,000 scholarship from the blood bank. He could be in welding school right now, for free.

"I always told myself I wouldn't work no 9 to 5," he says. "That's not going to be enough to pay the bills. I grew up around people who got fast money in the streets."

Sha'Ron says he is not involved in street life. He mostly keeps to himself. He's still trying to find a normal job. But most of his aunts and uncles think he's enrolled in Dean Tech, because that's what he told them.

"It's heart-wrenching," says Robert Visk, Sha'Ron's family liaison at Pressley Ridge.

School was always someone else's goal, and Sha'Ron is tired of living that lie. As the days drag on in McKees Rocks, Sha'Ron will eventually be pulled outside.

He tells a story. One day in November, he was visiting a friend in a project when a stranger approached Sha'Ron and pulled out a 9-millimeter pistol, pointing it at his face. Sha'Ron stared at him, dared him to pull the trigger. You gonna shoot me, shoot me. The man walked away.

To Sha'Ron, still being alive was no gift from the heavens.

"Eventually," he says, "somebody is going to pull the trigger."

Homewood hope

Jason Haddock does not talk like a man you would expect to see on the news for attempted homicide. His tone is soft, measured, a lot like Kurtis', actually.

"Kurtie's been a good kid his whole life," Jason says. "He just veers to the left from time to time. I'm trying to catch him before he veers left too far."

But how could Jason catch his younger brother and keep him from falling into prison? How could Kurtis take Jason's positive, do-right advice, and put his faith in it now?

Well, it will be up to Kurtis to understand that, to Jason, certain rules aren't to be broken, like this one: No harm to women and children.

"Nobody's playing by the rules," Jason says.

So now he's at his parents' home, released on bail with his charges pending, handing his family's baton to Kurtis.

"It's hard trying to change the cycle," Jason says, "but he's got to be the one to do it."

Jason knows it's a lot of pressure for a 15-year-old. His mother talks about Kurtis being a doctor or a lawyer, because he is that smart.

This Perry thing presents some hope. Kurtis has talked about trying out for the basketball team. Their family has seen what the game can do for a kid. Their cousin, Gerald Warrick, got out of Pittsburgh, playing college basketball at Edinboro and Point Park universities before signing a professional contract in the Balkan nation of Montenegro.

At the base level, the Perry basketball team would represent two more hours a day that Kurtis would not be aimlessly roaming Homewood. With the recreation center closed, there is nowhere for him to go after school, other than the YMCA, but that costs money.

Recently, Kurtis and his friends were hanging out at the Y. They ignored the lady at the front desk who told them they couldn't stay, openly defying her by going to the gym anyway. When Carol Speaks-Haddock heard that story, she forced Kurtis to apologize to the woman.

"I'm sorry if I offended you in any way," Kurtis told her, "and I apologize for my friend cussing you out. That was unnecessary."

For Carol, that was a good morning. She had caught Kurtie red-handed. But it didn't really fix the problem.

Practicing a new life

Sometimes, you just have to listen to Kurtis Haddock:

"It's just getting worse for me. I feel as if I'm being tested. And I don't know which way I want to go with this. I can lay back, being cool, but I don't know how much longer I can lay back and be cool and just say, 'This is OK, God will take care of this and that,' and so on and so forth, you know?

"I will never swallow my pride, or button my tongue. If I have something to say, it will be said. If I think that what I'm about to do is right, there's no going back. I'm like a machine. Once I am set in motion, there is no stopping me. I lead with my heart.

"I feel like it's an intense period of my life, fighting to live, living to fight. I feel like it's all just a big game. And if you play it the wrong way, you lose. You have to play or die."

Kurtis is being asked to let the adults handle it. He saw how that worked out with Jason. Not well. Who will answer for Anton's blood? If he doesn't, how long until it's he or another family member lying dead on the pavement? These are the questions that keep him up at night.

Not whether his integration is going well at Perry, where he wears the JROTC uniform on Wednesdays and Fridays, tall tan army boots and all. Not whether he will make the basketball team.

Oh, he showed up to a Perry workout one day, in November. It was hard. The coach, Marco Corona, made the players run and lift weights. Mr. Corona was willing to give Kurtis a chance, even though he was late to the tryout process. Kurtis struggled during that workout, but he still asked for a physical form afterward.

On the first day of practice for the Perry Commodores, the seven-time city champs and state champs in 1991, Mr. Corona gathered his guys around him at half court. Kurtis was not there. In fact, he had not come back after that first workout.

What did it matter?

"Congratulations on making the team," Mr. Corona said, and the new Commodores clapped in unison, as teammates, players who now belonged to one another.

Being thankful

In McKees Rocks, on Thanksgiving, Jeri Williams put her hard-earned money into delicious, tender ribs, a turkey and all the fixings. Sha'Ron played with his young nephews and nieces and laughed joyfully with his twin sister, Samye, who was back from college. They argued about who was better, LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. Everyone was happy, so Sha'Ron was happy.

In Sheraden, Helen Yobst, Dante's grandmother, worked quietly in the kitchen while Dante lay out in the living room with his mother and cousin, watching football. He had starred on Pressley Ridge's flag football team this fall, and so now he was thinking about trying to play in college.

In Homewood, Kurtis' sister, Na-Kea, had been in the kitchen since early in the morning, trying not to think about all the food her Anton would have eaten.

Instead, she thought about getting out of this neighborhood, but, gosh, the money it would take. Kurtis was the life of the party, dancing for his mother as his little nephews looked on with big smiles.

These homes, on this day, did not feel broken. Their love thrived in the succulent scents, wafting from room to room.

They wanted to thank Pressley Ridge, that special school at the top of the hill, with all of those special people. Angels. Without them, nobody could guess where Sha'Ron would be. Dante? No, he hadn't left the place yet, but he had still come so far. Kurtis could see Pressley's work in himself. Hey, he at least paused a little bit before he acted now.

Being thankful, as it turned out, was a subjective art. It changed based on where you'd come from, what you'd seen and what your expectations were for a child's life. Three young men had endured more than any person should. Now they had been treated and nurtured, and the belief was that the answers were still out there, their futures unencumbered by the past. But, it would be up to them. Always, it would be up to them.

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 3: Pressley Ridge: a bridge or a precipice? (Dec. 28)

J. Brady McCollough: and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.

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