It's the choices youths make, not their mistakes, that strip them of their freedom and land them in jail.
So says Dave Brown.
"When I got to middle school, I got kicked out my second week," said Brown, 24. "I had a razor blade on me, and I smelled like marijuana."
Brown spoke Saturday about how bad choices marred his young life and landed him in jail. His testimony was part of a two-day gang awareness conference held at the Baxter Hood Center at York Technical College.
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Brown is formerly part of Insiders, a group of inmates from the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice that travels the state telling youths about the consequences of their choices.
Brown has been out of DJJ for seven years, but he still uses his story to try to keep others from making the same bad choices he did.
He's found a job and enrolled in a college. But his life was heading a different way when he got kicked out of middle school, said Brown, who recapped a conversation he had with a man.
"He asked me why I wasn't in school," Brown said. "I told him I didn't think school was for me. He said, 'I got something for you.'"
The man gave Brown marijuana and later cocaine to sell. "I started snorting cocaine," Brown said. "Basically, I was destroying my life."
But he was afraid to ask for help, he said.
Some time later, a high Brown went to a basketball game and abandoned it to drink alcohol, he said. Meanwhile, his cousins had gotten into a fight. Brown thought he had to vindicate his cousins.
"I cracked a bottle and swung at them," Brown recalled. "I didn't get them that time."
But he saw his cousin crying and vowed to make things right. He hopped into the back seat of his uncle's car.
"He said, 'Why didn't you deal with them while you had the chance?'"
Brown's uncle handed his nephew a 9mm weapon and some alcohol, changing Brown's life forever, he said.
"I jumped out of the car and cut him," Brown said about the person who fought his cousin. "I was on a rampage. I didn't care about his life."
The next morning brought realization.
"The guy I cut was my friend but, by me using the drugs, I didn't even recognize him. I had a box cutter across his face. I almost decapitated him, and I didn't know it."
Brown was sentenced to five years. In court, his mother looked at him and fainted.
A 13-year-old Charleston boy also part of Insiders -- identified only as Ollie -- was kicked out of school.
"I thought, 'Bump school. I'll go out there and make some money,'" Ollie recalled. "I felt like I was unstoppable."
Until a drug deal with some men in a truck forced change.
"We pulled out some guns to rob them," he said. "I heard two gun shots, and the truck wrecked into a house."
Ollie ran to a friend's house and sat on the porch. He didn't know a man was shot in the neck and died. Ollie didn't pull the trigger, but he might as well have, he said. He was the one who set up the robbery, a DJJ official said.
"At the age of 13, I was charged with murder," Ollie said. "I had to straightened up my life, so I talk to youth so they don't make the choices I made. Notice I said choices, not mistakes."
The summit, which began Friday, was sponsored by YouthNet, a community initiative that works to address the needs of emotionally disturbed children and their families in York, Chester and Lancaster counties.
"It was so powerful," said Chana Sanders, YouthNet project director. "They needed to hear from other youth who have been in trouble -- that poor choices can lead to dangerous consequences and even imprisonment."