COSTA MESA — Some people didn't recognize her when she returned to Costa Mesa High School in September to start her senior year.

She dressed differently and dropped the attitude. She no longer took pride in having her peers fear her. She changed her speech and traded in her gang membership for spots on the school's soccer and business academy teams.

But all that wasn't an easy transformation for the 17-year-old girl, who the Daily Pilot is not identifying because of her criminal record. It took a stint in juvenile hall to make her change her ways. Now, troubled times behind her, the reformed teen graduated Thursday with her fellow seniors from around the Newport-Mesa district.

"I needed something to make me think … if it wasn't for this I probably would still be in involved with gangs, or have got shot or arrested," she said. "I just feel really lucky because God gave me a second chance."

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To juvenile hall and back

She was angry.

A rival gang member had "disrespected" her in front of her little sister. Barely 16, she was already known as a member of a Costa Mesa gang.

In a haze of rage, she changed into a white T-shirt and grabbed a butter knife from the kitchen.

She went to find the girl.

Once she found her, she grabbed her by the hair and started the fight. Eventually she pulled the knife out of a back pocket and slashed the girl, continuing to fight as blood dripped onto her arm and stained her shirt, she recalled in an interview.

When she got home, she knew she was going to be arrested. But she didn't care. Instead, she boasted about it.

"I started writing on MySpace, 'I'm getting arrested. Write to me,'" she said. "I was proud of it."

She was still filled with pride as police arrested her at her home and, later on, as she watched her parents crying at the station.

It wasn't until she was sitting alone in her room in juvenile hall that the gravity of the situation overwhelmed her.

Alone, she became depressed, refused to eat, and the tears started coming. It was then that she repented for all of the choices she had made.

"I'd have those flashbacks, like bang, bang, of all those mistakes I've made and I would say, 'Why would I want to be a follower? Why didn't I just do my own thing?'"

Something told her to change and get her life together.

She started with taking responsibility for what she had done and pleaded guilty to felony fighting with a deadly weapon, gang terrorism and involvement with gangs, which led to a six-month sentence in a juvenile detention center.

She ended up doing nearly a year in several different facilities, but she used the time to begin her transformation. She dropped the attitude, kept her head down and avoided getting in trouble.