A 16-year-old Victoria student who spent more than three years in and out of detention walked out of the Victoria Regional Juvenile Justice Center on Thursday with a high school diploma she never thought she would earn.
“I feel like a new person,” said Izabella Bazan. “If I can do it, anybody can do it.”
Family, friends, judges and juvenile justice officials packed the courtroom and spilled into the doorway to watch Izabella and Kaylee Miller, 16, of Abilene, graduate while in the post-adjudication program at the Victoria Regional Juvenile Justice Center.
Multiple area officials offered the graduates words of wisdom before they gave their own speeches, including Quintin Shepherd, VISD superintendent, and Pamela Collins Stovall, first assistant district attorney.
“Don’t let what happened to you in your past hold your future. Your past is just your story, but your future will be your victory,” Stovall told them. “You have the opportunity now to get a dream, have some goals, have a plan and stick to it and you can be anything that you want to be.”
Both graduates gave heartfelt speeches while trying to hold back tears, as they spoke about the lessons they learned and individually thanked everyone who supported them.
“I plan to move forward and make myself, my family and God proud ... to be a law-abiding citizen and role model for my younger siblings,” Kaylee said. “My past will forever be there, (and) people will come and challenge my inner demons, but I know I have the power to control this fight, and I will make it out.”
Kaylee went to the detention center with most of her credit requirements completed, unlike Izabella, who first arrived as an eighth-grade student with zero high school credits, said Pama Hencerling, the center’s chief probation officer.
Izabella was first sentenced to the detention center’s post-adjudication program in January 2016 and stayed for more than sixth months before she was released.
Kristine Martin, principal and history teacher, said Izabella succeeded academically while in custody, though she had difficulty improving her behavioral choices because of her young age.
After her first release, she was sent to another juvenile program in a different county before returning to the Victoria Regional Juvenile Justice Center in June 2018, Martin said.
“She was not doing well there and was terminated,” Martin said. “Her probation officer felt that because of her history here and because of her successes here, they were going to give her a second chance.”
Martin knew from the start that Izabella was capable of graduating and forging a new path for herself, she said.
“She could graduate and do a lot of things, it was just breaking through,” she said. “(Youth) are not here because they can’t do academics; they are here because of the bad choices that they made, so we have all got to counsel (and) we’ve all got to hold the banner up like a parent and step in their lives and give them direction and rebuild, ’cause they’re broken.
“This is our daughter graduating, but we feel that way (because) we spend so much time with these kids.”
Izabella said that she initially refused to put in the work required to earn her diploma before her release date because she was thinking about what would satisfy her desires rather than what would benefit her future.
“Being here, I realized I can’t live life always not being content with the world for things I can not change,” she said. “I not only grew academically – I grew stronger, wiser and stopped letting anger control who I am. I no longer pushed away those who were only trying to help, (and) I learned to face my struggles and avoid taking my problems out on others.”
Christina Chapa, Izabella’s case manager, said she watched Izabella pull herself together and progress, particularly in the past several months.
Izabella already passed her entrance exam and enrolled in freshman orientation at Victoria College, where she plans to take basic courses before studying criminal justice.
She said she wants to inspire and change lives, like the detention center educators, counselors and probation officers at the Victoria Regional Juvenile Justice Center who have influenced her.
Izabella’s father, Ernest Bazan, said he could not be more proud of his daughter.
“It has been a long journey, but she has accomplished so much,” he said. “I’d love to see her be a probation officer or counselor for the kids (and) show her testimony. She can tell other kids, ‘I’ve done the program – If I can accomplish it, you can, too.’”