It’s prom season in Kentucky, and that means after-prom parties. At least one high school is using this annual event to address teenage drinking and driving. In 2011, eight teenagers died in drunken driving accidents and there were a total of 375 crashes. Whitney Jones has more on how one police department hopes to prevent underage drinking and driving.
Crumpled cars, broken glass and scattered empty beer cans greeted students and parents as they drove to Murray High School Friday morning.
Firemen pulled both a dummy and two people out of the smashed cars as students made their way to morning classes. The elaborate car crash scene was one part of the Murray Police Department’s first Ghost Out, a program aimed at preventing teens from drinking and driving. The police department couldn’t have picked a better time – prom was the very next night.
“We felt that today, being the day before prom, would be a great reminder right before kids go out for that traditional party night, and hopefully help them make a better choice,” said David Howe, Murray Police Department’s Public Affairs Officer.
Howe said some people thought the accident was real. But the crash scene was just the first of several ways the police department encouraged students to stay safe during their big night.
Police officer Scott Brown dressed as the Grim Reaper – scythe and all – and roamed the halls throughout the school day, pulling students who had agreed to participate out of class. Some students were spooked ad others snickered as the more than 6 foot tall man glided into their class, wearing a long black robe, white mask and sunglasses. But all were silent when the chosen student left behind their empty desk and School Resource Officer Nicky Knight explained what was happening.
“This student has just been selected by the Grim Reaper as another victim of an impaired driving related crash,” Knight read. “Because this student no longer exists, she will not be returning to class. The loss of this student represents the fact that someone dies in an impaired driving related crash every 30 minutes… Thank you.”
Howe said the police department wanted to remind students throughout the entire day that their classmate was gone to give them a glimpse into what losing a friend in a drinking and driving accident would be like.
“We’re placing a big black bow on each desk to remind people that that’s where that student would be. …. It will move from class to class to remind people that the student is no longer there,” Howe said.
Knight said the teachers were sometimes more perturbed than the students during a few of the 14 classroom presentations.
“There was a couple of rooms that I went in that kind of tore the teachers up because they said it hadn’t been in the last four years, none of these students have had to see it but there have been like three students that have been killed” Knight said.“And one of the teachers said this brings back memories of having real roses on an empty desk.”
One of the presentations was particularly difficult for Knight. His teenage daughter was one of the students taken by the Grim Reaper.
“I had read that stuff time and time and time again, but when I read it for her, I got a lump in my throat,” he said.
Knight’s daughter and the other students taken out of class spent the rest of the school day in the gym locker room where they were asked to write their own obituaries. They didn’t miss out on too much school work that day because it was the end of a standardized testing week and the day before prom.
Murray High junior Christina Duncan said she was a little uncomfortable writing her own obituary.
“I didn’t like to write about how I died or like how I won’t be walking the halls any more and doing normal things,” she said. “So that was kind of sad. I didn’t like telling who I left behind, that was weird.”
Near the end of the school day all the students gathered for an afternoon assembly. As they walked into the gymnasium, they had to pass an open coffin with a mirror placed inside. So when they looked at the coffin, they saw themselves.
Bruce Rogers, a Murray High alum who had been involved in a drinking and driving accident that killed the other passenger, spoke at the assembly urging students to not make the same mistake. When he was finished, a mock funeral for the students taken out of class began.
Those 14 students walked out each dressed in black and carrying a single white candle.
Councilman and pastor Butch Seargent said two prayers and gave a short sermon before reading all the student-written obituaries. As he read the students’ names and how they had died, the Grim Reaper approached and they blew out the candle in their hands. Then law enforcement laid them down and covered each student with a white sheet.
Murray High Principal Teresa Speed said the next Ghost Out won’t be until at least another 4 years, so the program has greater impact on the students.
While many students seemed to take the message to heart, senior Elizabeth Hernandez said the program was a little over the top at times.
“It’s good, you know, to see the consequences but parts of it was like just too much, too real,” she said. “Some people didn’t respect it. They laughed. So I didn’t like it.”
Another student Isabel Martinez said she thinks the Ghost Out may have had a small impact on her classmates.
“They probably won’t stop drinking,” she said. “They’ll probably be like, ‘Oh we’re going to get a designated driver now.’ But they have probably made people think, ‘Oh, we’re not going to drive or let’s throw the keys overboard or something.’”
Sgt. Howe said if just one student reconsiders his or her actions because of the program he considers it a success. He adds that the funding from the program comes from alcohol sales in Murray through the Alcohol Beverage Control.