Students get a sobering alcohol lesson

Simulated crash part of school's program

October 18, 2001|By Stephen Kiehl | By Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

The juniors and seniors at Glen Burnie's North County High School streamed into the auditorium yesterday to find an open casket at the foot of the stage, filled with old yearbooks containing their names - all of them arranged alphabetically.

In the darkened room, the lone silver coffin was creepy and unnerving. Students gasped. A few giggled. But, this being an alcohol-awareness assembly, the message was clear: If you drink and drive, that coffin could hold more than just your name.

This graphic way of scaring students sober took an even more gruesome turn after the assembly, when the 900 students gathered on a wind- swept football field to find four classmates trapped in two cars.

The simulated collision - in which a red Chevy pickup broadsided a gray Eagle sedan - appeared to have thrown two other students clear of the vehicles. Bloodied and bruised, their "lifeless" bodies lay on the grass, amid shards of glass.

Standing on a hillside, the assembled students watched a rescue operation, with screaming fire engines, the "jaws of life," body bags, hearses and a grieving parent identifying a victim.

"We have a lot of high-risk kids here, and we need to hammer them with the reality that they're not 10 feet tall and bulletproof," said Robert J. Schappert, chief of Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Company, who developed the alcohol awareness program.

In Anne Arundel County, 80 percent of high school seniors have drunk beer or wine, 69 percent have consumed hard liquor and 65 percent have had five or more drinks in one sitting, according to a state survey. A perception remains, officials say, that alcohol isn't as dangerous as illegal drugs.

Yesterday, officials tried to change that misperception with the assembly and rescue simulation. In the auditorium, besides the coffin - a constant, stark reminder to students of their mortality - mothers who had lost children to drunken-driving accidents spoke haltingly and tearfully of their pain and loss.

"I never believed a person could hurt so badly and still be alive," said Claudia Balasic of her pain. Her daughter Bethany was a freshman at Severna Park High School in 1996 when she was killed in a pickup truck struck by a drunken driver.

Bethany was on a date, and the boy she was with was rushing through a Ritchie Highway intersection because they were late. Neither was wearing a seat belt. Both were thrown from the truck, which rolled over Bethany twice.

"I heard the sirens that night and I said a prayer, because I always say a prayer when I hear sirens," Claudia Balasic told the students. "I never dreamed I'd be praying for my own daughter."

The students sat in silence as they heard the stories. Then Schappert, the fire chief, asked them to look at who was sitting behind them, to their left, their right and in front of them.

Then he asked, "Who's not going to be here after homecoming or prom season? Who will be on the In Memoriam page in the yearbook?"

The students filed outside, where their six classmates were waiting to act out a crash aftermath scene. The actors had spent half an hour in makeup. Some had red and purple abrasions on their faces. Others had bloodied knees and elbows. Some had fake blood coating their hair and clothing.

The ones who were trapped in the cars held hands and alternately prayed and screamed as they were cut out with the "jaws of life." Rescue crews smashed the windows, then removed the roofs.

Later, one of the actors, senior Ebonnie Weathers, said, "When they put me in that body bag and zipped me up and put me in the hearse, it was the most traumatic experience I have ever endured. I don't wish this on anybody."

North County Assistant Principal Scott Goldberg, who helped plan yesterday's event, said he wanted to create a "flashbulb memory" for students - something they would recall when faced with the decision of getting into a car with someone who has been drinking.

"You cannot witness something like what they saw and just walk away unaffected," he said.

County drug- and alcohol-awareness officials said North County is the first Anne Arundel high school to so graphically shown the consequences of drunken driving. For these students, such displays might be necessary, students and officials said.

"If you don't stimulate them, you're not going to get anything from them," said Jean McCracken, a substance-abuse liaison for county schools.

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