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How Much Impact?

Local students vary in describing effects of accidents on students’ driving habits.

Do the recent fatal accidents involving teens have an impact on local students and their driving habits? Answers vary from student to student and from school to school.

A frequent refrain from students, parents, police and schools is a call for more honest, open talk between novice drivers and their parents.

“The biggest thing people have been talking about is the level of trust between students and parents,” said Jeremy Sherer, president of Churchill’s junior class. “I feel that parents are realizing that … what it comes down to is keeping your kids safe.”

Some students already have that type of relationship with their parents, where they can speak candidly about weekend activities without fearing reprimand from their parents, said Sherer, but this is not the case in all households. Too many families remain inclined toward a status quo where teenagers tell their parents what they want to hear, and parents look the other way.

“Kids are going to do things that their parents don’t necessarily want them to do,” Sherer said. “I think that parents and kids are being much more open with each other right now.”

SHERER ADDRESSED the entire school about the death of Sarkis “Sako” George Nazarian Jr., both through a letter to students and on Churchill’s public address system. Sako, 16, died on Nov. 13 after a 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee he was driving slid off the road and struck a tree. He was pronounced dead at the scene, and was not wearing a seat belt, according to police.

Sherer is on a mission to see that Sako is remembered by everybody at the school, and that they keep him in mind when they make day-to-day decision. After a month of mourning, Sherer believes there’s been some positive progress.

“I think kids are driving more cautiously,” Sherer said. “This accident kind of changed their outlook on driving. … Kids are doing little things to remind themselves of it.”

Sherer and some other students have ribbons in the school’s blue and green colors on their keychains to remind themselves of Sako.

Nearly 300 students went to a memorial candlelight vigil for Sako in Avenel Park. “People were coming up and sharing memories of him,” Sherer said. “There were a lot of tears.”

Churchill also held a memorial for Sako at the school auditorium, which nearly 500 students attended. The memorial included a slide show. Baja Fresh also sponsored a Monday Night fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, a cause chosen by Sako’s family.

"I think they should remember him for the kid that he was,“ said Sherer, but he also hopes that remembering Sako will mean being able “just to see the affect one single decision can have on an entire community [and] how fragile life really is,” Sherer said. “I don’t think 16- or 17-year-olds can ever really understand how dangerous a car is.”

“I’m worried that people won’t keep this fresh in their minds,” said Sherer. “I’m worried for the other classes… because they won’t have known him, and what happened to him.”

HOURS BEFORE Sako’s crash, Wootton junior Solomon King was struck by a hit-and-run driver on Nov. 12 while walking down Travilah Road with two friends, and King died from injuries sustained in the accident. The driver has still not been apprehended.

King was a pedestrian, but coupled with Sako’s nearby accident and other teenage driving fatalities in Montgomery County, Solomon’s death has raised some amount of awareness among Wootton students about dangers inherent in driving, said junior Krista Vetrano.

“I feel like drunk driving has become a lot more of an issue,” said Vetrano, a member of Wootton’s student government. “I’m not sure that it’s getting through to people, though. Some people have been really affected by it, but there are still people driving drunk.”

Vetrano and senior Allie Keyser were one of 35 Wootton students who traveled to New York earlier this month to attend a taping of “The Jane Pauley Show.” Students from Wootton’s student government and Students Against Drunk Driving chapter attended, as did students from Damascus and Blake high schools, both of which lost students to driving accidents.

“The Jane Pauley Show” featured reactions of students as they watched “Smashed,” an HBO documentary on teenagers in car accidents scheduled to air in January. Wootton students watched it at school prior to the trip, with guidance counselors available — three students had to leave the room during segments they found disturbing.

“I definitely think the video ‘Smashed’ should be seen by everyone,” Keyser said. Vetrano agrees that “Smashed” would make an equally strong impression if other students were to watch it. More than any graphic images of accident victims, Vetrano and Keyser said the documentary was powerful because it followed the lives of teenagers who survived car crashes with serious injuries, impairments or brain damage.

“We follow a story from beginning to end; it wasn’t just blood, gore and guts,” said Keyser. “People think it’s black or white — you either die or live. … It’s that you have to deal with it for the rest of your life.”

“Hearing the actual kids actually talk about the experience is a lot different from hearing a teacher standing there and telling the class not to drink and drive,” Vetrano said.

“The Jane Pauley Show” featuring the Montgomery County students hasn’t aired yet, and is likely to run in early January, before the debut of “Smashed” on HBO.

AT WHITMAN, where there have been no driving or pedestrian fatalities in recent years, teenage driving issues are a focus on the parental level, but not on the student level, said senior Jeff Luse.

“It hasn’t been talked about as much among the students,” said Luse, Whitman’s student government president. “At the PTA meetings, it’s definitely been talked about a lot.”

Luse attends some of the Whitman PTA meetings, where parents discuss issues such as improving pedestrian and driver safety near Whitman.

The speed limit in the neighborhoods near Whitman is 30 mph. “I think it’s a matter of students being prudent when they’re driving,” Luse said.

Whitman has had a zero-tolerance policy, under which students who attend school or a school-sponsored activity under the influence of alcohol or drugs are suspended from all school activities for one year. “Personally, I have not noticed it having much of an impact,” Luse said. “There are still kids who show up at school under some influence.”