Working to end fatal car crash cycle

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Community has lost six young people to fatal accidents this year

By Emily LaForme

Olivia Ford. 

Shelby Goode. 

Blake Lawson. 

Michael Robey. 

Austin Smith. 

Bailey Smith. 

Six Marion County teenagers lost their lives tragically in four separate car accidents this year, and now Marion County High School is looking for ways to end the cycle and educate students on the dangers of driving.

In two of the four accidents, no seat belts were in use, and in three of the wrecks, speed was a factor, according to police reports. 

MCHS is doing what it can to encourage its students to buckle up and slow down while driving. 

“After the number of deaths of students in 2018 from car accidents, Mrs. (Tara) Wade and I sat at lunch one day and decided that we had to do something to help make our students safer and make better decisions,” said MCHS teacher Jamie Brown. “As we talked to Mr. Elmore, he told us that Mrs. Summers, through the Youth Service Center, was working on a similar project in conjunction with Red Ribbon Week, so we have combined our projects.”

For two weeks (Oct. 19-Nov. 2), MCHS staff is leading a campaign to make students aware of the importance of wearing seat belts. 

“We are working with the Marion County Health Department and KSP,” said Brown. “Two weeks ago, seniors Fernanda Reyes and Brianna Morris spoke before the Heartland Coalition meeting to area service groups like the Lebanon Police Department, the sheriff's department, the health department, etc., to gain even more support. On Oct. 24, two students, Sammy Tate and Erica Elliott, went to the radio station with Mrs. Summers to promote the program as well.” 

Students see this as a positive step.

“I’m just happy that we are finally taking initiative on this,” said Fernanda Reyes. “For students in general, we need to put it out there that we need to wear our seat belts, and we need to feel that it is necessary to wear them. Hopefully, the students will feel the connection from our losses and choose to do something different and know that it is not okay to not wear your seat belt.”

Student Sammy Tate said they are working to both honor students and friends they have lost, but also try to make the tragedy a learning opportunity. 

“A lot of people were close to Olivia, Austin, Michael, and the others, and they will be our reminders to always wear a seat belt,” said Tate. “It’s tragic, and I’m glad we are finally getting this out there.”

Reyes said their decision to be involved in the effort is because they feel the need to educate themselves and their classmates. 

“We personally believe we need to reach all of the young drivers in the community, not because the teachers have asked us to help,” said Reyes. “We want to educate students about the dangers of getting into a car.”

Reyes, Tate, along with Beta and FBLA students, have been helping with a social media campaign, putting flyers in businesses, completing surveys at the homecoming football game, which was held this past Friday, and will be helping at an upcoming assembly on Nov. 2. 

“We will be asking students and parents to participate in ‘seat belt selfies’ on social media,” said Brown. “There will also be some trivia on social media and drawings on Nov. 2 for participating in any of our events throughout the two weeks. Many students have also signed a pledge banner to always wear seat belts.” 

Students and staff are also gathering data and working to continue honoring the students they have lost this year. 

“We are gathering data from students and adults in several ways through unannounced seat belt checks and surveys so that we can publish the information,” said Brown. “We are also working on a permanent memorial on school grounds for the current students who we've lost in 2018, and we're hoping to reveal those plans in the upcoming weeks once we have school and district approval.”

MCHS Principal Thad Elmore said he and his students and staff are trying to start a discussion with the community about the importance of driving safely. Elmore also said he and the school are very interested in working with the community to possibly implement a traditional driver’s training course. 

“I can’t say we can offer a driver’s education course for credit, but maybe moving forward we can bring a program to the school that can still be offered,” he said.

Reyes believes students would welcome a formal driver’s training course.

“I think a real driver’s training course would be great,” said Reyes. “Right now, everything is online that we learn, and you can skim through the questions. But, to actually experience it in real life would be great. I learned from my parents. That’s mainly how it is done now. We don’t have actual training from an instructor. I wish we had that here.”

Overall, it’s been a difficult year for MCHS, but Elmore said his students and staff are getting through it, and remain resilient. 

“Any time you have a loss of life, you have serious effects,” said Elmore. “Our counselors here have done an amazing job. We’ve also called in the state trauma team to assist with the students and staff previously this year. We as a staff look at these students as our kids. We spend 35 hours a week with them, and you really feel that responsibility for them. The students and staff have done well, considering, but we still want to make sure we have support here for them.”

The loss of six young people is still heavy on the hearts of everyone, and the school wants to make sure they never shame them for what happened, but also use their example to try to protect other students moving forward.

“In life you are going to have to make choices and decisions, and we need to make sure we are trying to make wise and positive decisions,” said Elmore. “Don’t take anything for granted. It’s about the value of life. Many times, even as adults, we get caught up in the moment, and we need to slow down and appreciate the life that we are given and make the most out of it.”

Marion County Sheriff Jimmy Clements also weighed in on the issue. 

“Being familiar with the court system, I see a fair share of teenagers coming before the court with speeding tickets,” said Clements. “I think a driver’s training course may be a good thing to be reinstituted for students.”

Clements said mistakes are natural and human, but if mistakes can be avoided, especially with driving, people need to do whatever they can. 

“I know teenagers are young and are enjoying the freedom of driving, but when you throw others in there and you add a radio or phone distraction, that is just too many variables,” said Clements. “I know from a recent study that when more than one teenager gets into a car, the chances for an accident increase.”

Clements said teenagers, and even adults, need to be aware of outside variables they cannot control while driving.

“One grim reality is that accidents are going to happen,” he said. “There are so many outside variables such as deer or cattle in the roadway, or other drunk drivers, or cellphone use. I just want everyone to know that some mistakes just can’t be recovered from, and bad things can happen very quickly.”