Wednesday, 06 April 2016 08:43

Breaking the Cycle

Katie Johnson was a teenager who ended up in the juvenile hall that Erin will be visiting in San Diego on Christmas Eve. Katie is an example of how positive reinforcement and second chances can change students' trajectories and how they see themselves. Below is her story of success. 

Katie Johnson was arrested in 2010 after she took 13 Xanax at 10:30 in the morning and attempted to drive. She was only 15 years old. This was not the first time Katie’s family was exposed to her addiction, but this time it landed her in San Diego Juvenile Hall.

Being in juvenile hall was the first time Katie was clean of narcotics since she was nine years old. At a very young age, Katie felt pressure from her family because she was the oldest sibling and expected to help with more responsibilities than the average elementary school student. So when she found her mother’s oxytocin at nine, she used the pills to help cope with her situation. By eleven, Katie had moved onto her aunt’s methamphetamines and found herself with a serious addiction that her family didn’t discover for years. They tried to put her in an in-patient rehab facility, but she continued using.

The driving-while-under-the-influence day was the last time Katie used. She was forced to get sober in juvenile hall and has stayed clean ever since. The public defender for Katie’s case was Freedom Writer Teacher Daniel Ybarra. Daniel does not have a classroom like most Freedom Writer Teachers. He has chosen instead to make his courtroom the classroom and goes there everyday to change students' lives.  

Daniel used to be a bodyguard for Cesar Chavez who encouraged him to study law at Harvard. Upon graduation, he decided to become a defense attorney. He was assigned to the juvenile deliquency department where he encountered kids who he realized had more potential than what was in their files. He created a program that encouraged kids to stay on a positive path with the goal of getting to travel the world.

After her release, Katie was invited by Daniel to go to Europe in 2012 and China in 2013 with other teenagers who had been in juvenile halls. Katie got to meet students from other countries and share her story. Katie believes that these incentives do more to help kids like her than the just the punishment of being incarcerated and the cycle that usually follows.

Katie now lives on her own, has a steady job, where she was promoted within six months, and continues to share her story of success. Erin Gruwell is eager to meet more incredible teenagers like Katie when she visits the San Diego Juvenile Hall this holiday season with Daniel Ybarra. Together, they want to remind the teens that there is hope for them and that, like Katie and the Freedom Writers, they too, can end the cycle.