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DISTRACTED TO DEATH

Tigerton school graphically shows consequences of texting, driving
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Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski Tigerton High School student Harley Graham slumps against her seat during the mock crash Wednesday behind Tigerton High School. Graham was one of the students declared “dead” at the scene.

A moment of distraction can cause a lifetime of pain and regret.

Tigerton High School made that message loud and clear Wednesday as it hosted a mock crash with the help of local law enforcement and emergency services, along with other presentations pointing out the dangers of texting while driving.

Umbrellas dotted a grassy hill behind the school as about 350 students from its school and neighboring Bowler, Gresham and Marion saw three colored tarps on the ground below. The clicking sounds of someone texting were followed up by screeching tires and the thump of a vehicle colliding with something.

Moments later, the tarps were removed to reveal two beat up cars, one tan and the other maroon, with shattered windshields, as well as a female teen lying motionless on the ground. A loud scream from Megan Suehring, playing the role of a passer-by who first came upon the grisly scene, echoed throughout the school yard.

As she frantically checked on the occupants of both vehicles, she made an emergency call on her phone. In less than three minutes, a squad car from the Tigerton Police Department arrived on the scene. This was quickly followed up by vehicles from Tigerton’s fire department and EMS, and personnel moved to assess the four teens in the crash.

The female on the ground and the female driver in the maroon car were declared dead by Shawano County’s coroner, Brian Westphal, while paramedics loaded the female passenger in the tan car into an ambulance. The male driver of the tan car, the texter in the scenario, was able to walk to the ambulance, assisted by a medic, to be examined, blood dripping all over his face.

It was an accident that shouldn’t have happened, but it was one that happens all too frequently on roads throughout the United States. Someone receives a text while driving, and instead of waiting until arriving at the destination to reply, the driver will compose a message while still traveling at various speeds.

Benjamin Rayome, district superintendent and high school principal, hopes the visual message sticks with teens better than any text message could.

“We see kids on phones, parents on phones, everybody on phones. One in four accidents is due to distracted driving, and specifically cellphone use,” Rayome said. “We wanted to impact our four communities because we’re so close. We play each other for sports. We see each other when we go to work, where we play, so it makes sense for all of us to be together in this and realize everything we do impacts somebody else.”

In addition to the mock crash, students got to attempt texting and driving via a simulator to see what happens. Nearby in Tigerton’s gymnasium, a video was shown featuring those affected by an accident where a driver was texting while driving or was otherwise distracted. Later in the day, a mock funeral was held to illustrate the aftermath for family members and friends of people killed by distracted drivers.

The hardest message, aside from the mock crash, came from Lori Miller, a nursing director for a hospital in Marathon County and a grandmother of four. On July 13, 2015, Miller became another distracted driving statistic when she texted someone about whether a ball game was still happening even with bad weather coming when her vehicle struck and killed a bicyclist.

In 2010, a National Safety Council study stated that driving distractions were the cause of 3,092 deaths and over 416,000 injuries.

“The statistics are rising,” Miller said. “Drunk drivers have a better braking reaction than those texting.”

Miller was charged in 2016 could have been sentenced to up to 25 years for vehicular homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle, a Class G felony, but the judge opted to sentence her to a year in the county jail and five years of probation. Part of the conditions of her probation was to present her story to schools and adult groups in the hopes that what she went through would deter others from following others in her footsteps.

The presentation in Tigerton was her first presentation, and she told the students that, even though her incarceration was light, she will be haunted by what she’s done for life.

“My family was right there for me, but all I could think about was the victim and her family,” Miller said. “I felt horrible. I took another woman’s life.”

Ben Henninger, high school principal for Gresham Community School, said it was important for his students to get the message that no text requires risking life and limb to reply right away.

“Giving our students the opportunity to see the consequences for destructive behaviors is critical to understanding how much responsibility they’re taking on when they get behind the wheel of a car — the decisions they make before they get behind the wheel of a car and what they do when they get in a car,” Henninger said. “I think it’s great that they get to see how some of the consequences can affect so many lives besides just their own.”

Rayome said that Tigerton School District had hosted a mock crash a few years ago, before he took over as superintendent, and he was approached by parent Barb Block about doing it again. He acknowledged the message won’t hit home for everybody, but he hopes it has for at least some of the students, and they’ll think twice before answering a text while operating a vehicle.

“We just want our kids to be safe and for our community to be safe,” Rayome said. “We only get so much from hearing it. They see the message all the time, ‘Don’t text and drive.’ If we can see somebody else who has made the ultimate sacrifice with it, maybe we can make a better choice ourselves.”