Once delinquent, now `a good guy'

Change: Gary Johnson Jr.'s family prevailed where an abusive state-run juvenile program failed

but good may still come of the boot camp.

April 07, 2002|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

EASTON - Not too long ago, Gary Johnson Jr. would be asked a question by an adult and he'd force out a pat response, not unlike many 16-year-old boys. He'd answer with something resembling a grunt.

Little wonder he was so withdrawn. He had discovered alcohol at much too young an age, was constantly in trouble with his parents, his school and the law, and his future looked as bleak as his past.

And when he finally tried to end his three-year slide with the help of a state-run program - a boot camp for juveniles in the hills of Western Maryland - the employees who were there to straighten him out abused him. They handcuffed him, tossed him around and then jerked his wrist backward until it snapped. He returned home to the Eastern Shore as sullen and troubled as when he left for the camp.

What a difference a couple of years can make. Now he is 18; the grunts have been replaced with conversation, trouble has been replaced by work, his parents brag rather than apologize for him, and good is about to emerge from the hell he went through at the boot camp. He will get a share of the $4.6 million the state has agreed to pay to settle legal claims stemming from abuses at Johnson's camp and two others.

Part of that will come in cash, a share of $1 million split between him and nine other former cadets, which he plans to invest. But at least as meaningful as the money, Johnson says, is a provision in the settlement that will pay full tuition for four years of college.

"I'd love to be a teacher," he says. "From the time I was little, I thought teaching would be cool."

Two years ago, having that dream would have been an accomplishment in itself for Johnson. He was one of more than 50,000 young offenders that Maryland's Department of Juvenile Justice deals with every year, and fundamental to what many of them are lacking is any real hope for their future.

Nobody knows how many of the 890 former boot-camp inmates will take advantage of the education offer. But if Maryland is prepared to make amends for the institutionalized child abuse at the camps, Johnson is prepared to accept.

"I know now that I can be whatever - " he starts and suddenly stops when he finds himself sounding dangerously close to corny. "I know I can be what - what I am. I'm a good guy now."

Trouble for Johnson began at a time when it does for many kids: He became a teen-ager. Living in Easton, the son of divorced parents, he discovered a sure-fire recipe for trouble for almost any 13-year-old: the wrong crowd mixed with alcohol and spiced up with a BB gun.

"Every mother thinks it's someone else's kids, the `wrong crowd' kind of thing," says his mother, Linda Johnson. "But it was true with Gary. He was an excellent student. He just got in with this group and would go along with it, and that's his fault - but I always knew he was a good kid."

Gary Johnson and his buddies thought it would be fun to use the BB gun to shoot the windows out of cars. And it was - until they got caught. He was ordered to pay $1,900 restitution and was sentenced to home detention and - not yet in high school - was placed on probation.

"I talked to him at every chance, a lot of one-on-ones," says his father, Gary Johnson Sr. "His mother put him on restrictions; then he'd get back out and right back into trouble."

Of course, at 13 years old, Johnson thought he could do whatever he wanted and not get caught.

But, of course, he did. He was sentenced to alcohol-education classes for drinking beer. At 16 he was expelled from Easton High School for cutting classes and talking back to his teachers.

Expulsion was a violation of his probation. Johnson and his parents were given a choice: Either he attended night school or he went to Western Maryland to learn discipline and maybe a vocational skill at a boot camp run by the Department of Juvenile Justice.

"They billed it as this wilderness thing," his mother recalls. "You go out there, get some discipline, learn a few things. We thought it'd be good for him. We had no idea what was going on out there."

Says Johnson: "I was going down the wrong road, and I knew it. This sounded like it would help."

As a family, they chose the boot camp.

Beginning in 1996, the Department of Juvenile Justice began opening three boot camps for juvenile delinquents from across the state. Located in Garrett County, the camps were supposed to be modeled after the "tough-love" programs sprouting up in different parts of the country.

Delinquents would learn discipline through a military-like regimen in which good behavior was rewarded and poor behavior drew punishments such as extra calisthenics or exclusion from movie night.

It didn't quite work out that way.

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