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What Can Schools Do?

Area public schools try new approaches to educate teenagers on dangers of driving.

Joe Mamana felt Wootton needed to take another step toward educating students about the dangers involved in driving. In previous years, the school had sponsored such programs as “Every 15 Minutes.”

“They’re powerful, but unfortunately, a one-shot deal doesn’t address the issue,” Mamana, an assistant principal at Wootton, said.

Mamana, Wootton Principal Michael Doran and other school administrators began planning for a series of programs relating to safe driving and healthy decision-making. Wootton piloted a drunk-driving simulation last month, and brought 35 students to New York City to discuss a drunk-driving documentary on “The Jane Pauley Show.” Wootton’s activities culminate on Driver Awareness Day on Tuesday, Dec. 21, an entire day of driving/life-decision education for Wootton students.

“Unfortunately, it’s a perfect time. … This is something that is near and dear to all of us,” said Diana Blitz, a Wootton guidance counselor who advises the school’s Students Against Drunk Driving chapter. “Everybody has been affected by the multiple teen tragedies.”

Schools can’t solve such a multifaceted issue alone, said Mamana, but he feels that the school is obligated to try some innovative means of reaching its students. “We’re an education facility, and we need to educate kids,” said Mamana. “We’re here to make sure that kids are safe and secure.”

STUDENTS DROVE DRUNK, or rather drove under simulated drunk conditions, in “Gator-AID,” a program in which Wootton and Damascus high schools became pilots last month. Participating students wore “Fatal Vision Goggles” designed to replicate the effect several alcoholic drinks have on one’s vision and coordination, then drove a John Deere Gator vehicle through an obstacle course. “Some students did better, some knocked every cone down,” said Mamana.

Wootton students were invited to attend a taping of “The Jane Pauley Show” in New York City. A bus with Mamana and 35 Wootton SADD (Students Against Drunk Driving) members, student government leaders and peer counselors went on the daylong trip in early December. Students from Blake and Damascus high schools, both of whom lost students to car crashes in the past year, also attended the taping. Prior to the trip, students viewed “Smashed,” an HBO documentary tracking the lives of young drivers who were in serious car accidents. The students’ responses were taped, and on “Jane Pauley,” they were asked about their reactions to the movie.

“I’ve been in education for a long time, and I’ve seen many, many videos and many, many programs,” Mamana said. He acknowledges that a majority of videos on the subject have a limited impact on students, but after discussing “Smashed” with students who’d viewed it, he and Blitz felt it had hit home.

While “Smashed” had several bloody, graphic scenes of accident victims, Mamana, Blitz and several Wootton students said its strength was in following the subsequent lives of those who survived major car crashes, who went on to live with partial paralysis, limping and brain damage. “No one realized that they had to learn to eat again, they had to learn to go to the bathroom again,” Mamana said.

Seeing the crash victims’ parents as they dealt with the aftermath was also powerful. “Kids started looking at the parents dealing with this, and they couldn’t imagine putting their parents through that,” Mamana said.

Wootton students will watch “Smashed” as part of Driving Awareness Day this Tuesday.

CHURCHILL HELD SEVERAL memorial events for junior Sarkis “Sako” George Nazarian Jr., who was driving a Jeep Cherokee that went off Travilah Road and smashed into a tree on Nov. 13. Churchill Principal Joan Benz and PTSA president Robyn Solomon were both impressed with Brian Elzey, an adolescent counselor who spoke at a PTSA meeting in Churchill’s auditorium in the week following Sako’s death. Elzey will return to Churchill for more informal sessions to meet students through the rest of this month and through January.

Elzey, who has worked with Cabin John students for several years, is familiar to many Churchill students. He’s very, very connected with the kids; he speaks their language,” Benz said. “He’ll be giving his time to the school [for] kids who have concerns about driving — either their own or someone else’s.”

Benz said she is thankful that Sako's parents have invited Churchill students to their home in the weeks following his death. “Sako’s family has been wonderful about using this very bad experience they’ve been through to help educate people,” Benz said.

NEWS ABOUT TEENAGE driving fatalities in Montgomery County has had a minimal impact on Whitman students, said senior Jeff Luse, Whitman’s student government president.

“I’m not surprised,” said Ben OuYang, an assistant principal at Wootton. “They have an air of invincibility; they think it’s not going to happen to them.”

But the news of student deaths at neighboring schools has Whitman parents concerned about the issue, and drunk driving is a constant focus at Whitman.

“It’s resonating with the Whitman faculty because we’re the founders of zero-tolerance,” OuYang said.

“Generally speaking, I think students get tired of being talked at and lectured, like anybody else,” said Blitz at Wootton. OuYang agreed, and said one of Whitman’s notable efforts on drunk-driving education is a video production by Whitman students.

Whitman Shorts, a television production class, is in the process of recording a video on driving safety. Whitman English teacher Greg Malling assists in the production, but OuYang said the initiative to create this video came from students.

“It’s something that’s kid-initiated,” said OuYang. “Kids said, ‘We can make this more personable.’”

The video will not be completed for at least a month, but it is likely to deal with a variety of issues including the dangers of eating while driving, how long new drivers tend to go without looking at the road, and the actual amount of time saved by driving aggressively.

Whitman will hold a pair of parent meetings in upcoming months, after school and open to the public. Students will be invited to attend the second of these meetings, on Jan. 25.