Teenager earns judge’s praise

An Altoona teenager who eight months ago faced a possible trial in adult court and a state prison sentence for assault and gun violence has graduated from high school and is preparing for college, according to Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva.

The juvenile, 17, has spent the last eight months at a private, nonprofit juvenile treatment facility, George Junior Republic in Grove City, after he fired a gun through a sliding glass door into the kitchen of a home, nearly striking one of the occupants, and set up another youth for a beating by others. He has previous juvenile offenses.

After a lengthy hearing Wednesday, the judge suspended the 17-year-old’s commitment to George Junior and indicated he could resume living with his mother.

The judge urged juvenile probation officers and others involved with the youngster’s life “to get creative” in helping him transition from the treatment facility to life as a student at Delaware County Community College in Media.

While the teen is being set free, it comes with plenty of conditions.

He will be required to have a job and to prepare a list of his victims, including police officers and sheriff’s deputies, with whom he had run-ins and to personally apologize to each for his crimes.

Kopriva warned him that not everybody would be ready to accept his apology, but she said it would be a start in his transition to being a college student.

George Junior will provide some money toward his college, and a representative of the facility said it had an aftercare program that would help him adjust.

That aftercare would include help to find a place to live and get settled into his new environment.

The teenager will also be under the supervision of the Delaware County Juvenile Probation Office when he is at school and under watch by Cathy Dickinson, a Blair County probation officer, when he is at home.

Dickinson has been a believer in the young man since he entered the juvenile system, despite the many criminal charges against him.

Her faith in the boy remains strong after his court hearing this week.

She said she went to George Junior to see him play basketball and met with him the next day. He showed her his acceptance letter to college, and he shed a tear as he told her, “Imagine that. I’m going to college.”

“That was such a profound moment,” she said.

Dickinson said he started a job Thursday and began writing his apology letters, which will be turned over the the Blair County victim-witness coordinator for distribution.

Aside from the judge’s requirements, the 17-year-old will be like any other college student – preparing to move away from home and begin classes.

His high school graduation ceremony was May 31 in Grove City. His mother told the judge that 14 members of the family attended.

“I am ready to prove myself and work hard,” the boy told the judge.

It was suspected, at one point, that the teenager was leading a gang, but his attorney, Brian Grabill, said after one of the many court appearances by the youth during the past year, that point was never proven.

Blair County District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio last year wanted the youth declared an adult because of his participation in the beating of another youngster and his use of a gun in a home shooting incident.

In the intervening months, representatives of George Junior said the boy had completed its programs to teach him how to cope with problems, including disappointment. A therapist said he has become “very stable” and “very controlled.”

He also has been focused on school, it was reported.

He has been allowed to come home on several occasions, including a six-day pass. During the home visits, he kept close to his family and successfully completed the visits.

The boy sent a letter to Kopriva stating he wanted to “man up” and apologize to those who he harmed.

The judge asked him how he would handle a situation if confronted by one of his past victims. He said he would nod but would not fight.

If it came to possible violence, he said, he would walk away.

The boy will have to report regularly to the judge to relate how he is doing and explain what “challenges” he faces.

His mother told the judge she was proud of her son, and he told the judge, “My friends are my family.”

Last summer the boy was one of two juveniles facing trial as adults, for crimes of violence. The crime sprees by the two boys were not related.

Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle held a series of hearings on both cases and decided the one boy, who was close to being 18 years old, would be tried as an adult for several robberies and for shooting into a house.

That teen was recently sent to a state correctional institution for five to 15 years.

An Altoona psychiatrist recommended that the younger boy be tried as a juvenile because he lacked the “sophistication” of an adult criminal, his acts being more impulsive.

Doyle decided that boy would be tried in juvenile court.

Kopriva said he faces a transition period as he prepares for college and she said the next few weeks will “test the skills he has developed.”

Blair County Assistant District Attorney Deanne Paul represented the prosecution Wednesday, but Consiglio, who fought hard to have the youth placed in adult court, watched from the back of the courtroom.

He said he’s not convinced that a boy who fired a shot into someone’s home could turn around so quickly.

“I’m not buying that. … A guy doesn’t turn around in a couple of months, he said.

He added he hoped he was wrong.

Dickinson said that tests showed the teen was low risk for reoffending, and she said teens who commit serious crime at age 16 and 17 have a recidivism rate of only 10 percent, meaning 90 percent are able to straighten out their lives.

She added the boy has undergone several types of therapy during his stay at George Junior.