PARIS — On the day before prom, students at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School heard the consequences of drunk and distracted driving first-hand from those involved in accidents and emergency responders.
The morning of lectures, videos and discussion was organized by the school's Respect Team. Students moved from room to room for short presentations.
In the Forum, a retired Stephens Memorial Hospital nurse recalled the night in 1979 she was called in to try and revive five teenagers who were trapped in a car after the driver, who was drunk, drove into a canal.
The driver managed to escape, Darlene Glover told the assembled students, but the five passengers were too intoxicated to get out of the car. Glover recalled the ice-cold skin of a girl to whom she administered CPR. One by one, all five teens were pronounced dead.
She said the accident led to the beginning of Project Graduation, a program designed to keep kids off the road after they graduate.
“Most people don't believe that anything bad can happen to them,” Glover said.
It was a mantra repeated by most of the speakers, including a man who suffered brain damage and spent time in a coma after driving drunk, and a man whose friend died when he was driving while intoxicated.
“Ask yourself, 'Do I want to kill my friend?'” speaker Eric Hoyt advised students.
Hoyt said he'd never done public speaking. He said he hoped he got through to at least a few kids.
“When you're a teenager, you're invincible,” he said of teens' mindsets. Teens think bad things won't happen to them, he said. “And then it happens.”
Russell Day Benning said he drank and used drugs from a young age to keep him distracted from his miserable home life. Benning, an Oxford Hills native, said that on a five-day cocaine binge, he killed another man for his money and spent 19 years in jail for it. Now he's a substance abuse counselor.
Benning told students the first mistake he made wasn't taking drugs; it was not opening up to anyone about his emotions until he felt he needed drugs to dull them. He encouraged students to find something they loved to do and pursue it, and to find people to support them in their endeavors.
“There's so many ways you can take part in your own life,” Benning said.
Students listened quietly as speakers described their experiences. The message hit close to home after the loss of 16-year-old Oxford Hills student Rebecca Mason and 19-year-old Logan Dam in January. Police say the driver in that accident, Kristina Lowe, was drunk and texting when she crashed in West Paris. Lowe's attorney said a patch of ice caused the crash.
Mason's father, Jerrold Mason, was there too, to talk to students during lunch. He was joined by Justice4Jeff, a nonprofit dedicated to encouraging drivers not to speed, and the Impaired Driver Awareness Group of Oxford Hills.
State police were there as well, and school resource officer Hartley “Skip” Mowatt ran drunk and distracted driving simulators, which are like video games. Students are first invited to drive without any disadvantages to get used to the simulator, then try to drive with simulated drunkenness or a cellphone that blocks part of the screen.
Josh Till, a senior on the Respect Team, worked to create sheets where students can sign a pledge not to drive drunk or while distracted. Till said he thought the event had an effect on students. “I think we made our mark,” he said. “They're going to be thinking about this for a while.”