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SADD Mock Car CrashA Lansing High School student was killed Friday in a car crash Tompkins County Deputies say was caused by another Lansing student, distracted by texting when she plowed into another car.  While empty beer cans were found in the car, a field sobriety test showed the texting driver had no alcohol in her system.  Two other students suffered major injuries, including one with severe brain damage.  The driver who was texting had only minor injuries.  Virtually the entire Lansing High School population witnessed the aftermath at the scene of the accident on the school campus near the bus garage.  Except that this was not a real accident -- it was staged the day before the High School prom to encourage students to make responsible decisions, especially when driving.

"Going into it I thought of it like another play that I was in," says Emily Georgia, who played the role of the texting driver.  "But once you get into the car, covered in fake blood, it really felt like reality, not just an act.  Being the one that was texting, it had a big impact on me, especially after.  I was definitely more aware of what I was doing when I was driving.  I took the 'dead girl' home that night after the car crash, and I was super-anxious the whole time."

The event is staged about every three years by the Lansing chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD).  Co-advisor Kevin Wyszkowski, who has advised the Lansing SADD for 15 years, says it is planned so every Lansing student gets to experience it at least once in their high school career.  In addition to actual crashed cars and realistic, gory makeup, real police, fire fighters and ambulance and funeral home staff make the enactment seem alarmingly real.

SADD Mock Car CrashThe back seat passenger, who was not wearing a seat belt, flew through the windshield to her death. Photo courtesy of Doris Mowson

"I hate to watch it because it is so real," Wyszkowski says.  "These are kids you know.  These are kids you see every day.  I would say probably everybody is guilty of texting while driving at one time or another.  It can be just as devastating as drinking and driving."

Statistic show that distracted driving is the top cause of fatal automobile accidents.  That includes texting, but also includes talking on the phone, eating, reading, grooming, or talking to passengers.  (Yes, really, some people read while driving!)  In 2013 speeding caused the second highest number of fatalities, followed by drunk driving.

SADD Mock Car CrashMakeup call at Lansing Central Fire Station was at 5am Friday. It was applied by Lynn Green, Ann Drake, Diane Lauzun, Rebecca Drake, and BOCES cosmatology student Nicole Mix. Photo courtesty of Doris Mowson

SADD Mock Car CrashMakeup call at Lansing Central Fire Station was at 5am Friday. Photo courtesty of Sydney Fraboni

This year's scenario revolved around texting while driving.  The whole high school population was called to the gymnasium after Period 2 to be filled in on the event.  Students were given the option to opt out if they didn't think they could handle it.  The rest were brought down to the bus garage area, where they found a gory scene.

The scenario: a driver portrayed by Emily Georgia (senior) was texting on her phone when her car crashed into another car on the school service road near the bus garage.  She only suffered minor injuries, but her back-seat passenger, portrayed by Ekaterina Wilson (freshman), not wearing a seat belt, was propelled through the windshield onto the hood of her car.  The front seat passenger, played by Morgan Downing (senior), was trapped in the car and had to be extracted by the Fire Department.

Sydney Fraboni (senior) played the driver of the car that was struck, ending up with severe brain injuries.  Her passenger, portrayed by Taylor Marabella (junior), was not wearing a seat belt, consequently being injured more than she otherwise would have been.  Real fire fighters arrived at the scene, as well as Sheriff's deputies.

"They are used to being so efficient and quick at what they do, that we had to really slow it down so it would have the full effect with the students," Wyszkowski says.  "Then we stage everything.  They do their part, the Sheriff's Department does theirs.  Deputy Scott Walters was in the mock car crash in 2004.  Here he is now, responding to it at the school he graduated from."

SADD Mock Car CrashThe dead girl's body is taken away in a body bag, Photo courtesy of Doris Mowson

Charged with vehicular homicide Georgia was led away in handcuffs as the body was placed in a Lansing Funeral Home hearse.  The injured were removed by ambulance.  The impact on students watching the drama was clear.  A picture is worth a thousand words.

"I have seen a lot of my peers making destructive decisions, and I really wanted to help them," says Downing.  "It's sometimes hard to get to them through words.  I wanted to help persuade them in a more positive direction.  I thought that by doing this it would help them, and I think it did -- I've had so much positive feedback from all of my peers.  I'm really happy with how everything turned out."

Much of the Lansing community volunteered: the school buildings and Grounds department, the Lansing Fire Department, Bangs Ambulance, Finger Lakes Wrecker Service, Weitzman's, the Tompkins County Sheriff's Department, Lansing Funeral Home helped make the simulated crash happen.  Lansing Town Justice David Banfield and local attorney Michael Perehinec advised a student judge and attorneys for a mock trial a few days later.

Wyszkowski says that many former students tell him that the mock car crash made a big impact on their lives in terms of decisions they make that involve driving.  Two deputies and many of the fire fighters that participated Friday experienced the enactment when they attended Lansing High School.  Co-advisor Doris Mowson's son participated in the event at Lansing in 2006.

"My son's 'injury' was a broken femur with a compound fracture and bone sticking out," she recalls.  "Not being part of it you want to run in... but I was just an observer.  I think it impacted my son in a very positive way.  He has been a very safe driver, a very responsible driver.  He's always made good choices.  He and his friends seem to talk through the prospects of designating a driver.  I know that experience shaped his views on responsibility."

Photo courtesty of Doris Mowson

SADD members began working on the event about six months ago, raising funds, and then linking up the agencies that would take part.  They contacted other local districts to gather statistics on their mock car crashes, and built their case for presenting the event this year.

"This is very student driven event," Mowson says.  "Our SADD group collected data from other districts, they collected data from online sources, they contacted the Sheriff's Department.  They contacted the Fire Department.  They put together the presentation and presented it first to the administration, and brought it to a faculty meeting, and said 'here's what we have and why we want to present it this year.'"

SADD Mock TrialThe defendant and her attorneys look on as a prosecutor examines his witness, Tompkins County Sheriff's Deputy Pete Walker. (Lansing Star Photo)

This year a new element was added: a mock trial in the Lansing courtroom .  Georgia's character appeared in front of a student judge, with real Town Justice David Banfield on hand to offer advice.  Attorney Michael Perehinec worked with students to prepare for the trial that featured student judge Emily Pollack (junior), and attorneys Abby Craig (freshman), Nico Streb (junior), Michael Bashta (senior), and Sean O'Neil (junior).

Under oath the defendant claimed she had not been texting or using her phone in any way at the time of the accident.  But prosecution witnesses contradicted her story, despite the valiant efforts of her defense attorneys to impugn their testimony.  Social Studies teacher Isis Ivery testified the defendant had told her, just after the crash, that she only looked down for a moment.  But the most damning evidence was transcripts of texts between the defendant and her mother, and texting timestamps that showed texts coming from her phone at the time of the accident, provided to the prosecutors by the cell phone company.

She was lucky not to be charged with perjury -- at one point in her testimony a prosecutor reminded her she was under oath, clearly because he knew the evidence showed she was lying.

On the charge of texting while driving she was fined $250.  On the charge of vehicular homicide she was sentenced to five years in state prison and two years probation plus a $5,000 fine.

"We're going to talk about how it's changing everyone that was involved with it," Georgia said the day before the trial.  "I think that's going to really leave an impact."

Evidently it did.

"This weekend there were no fender benders with any of our kids that were reported to us, which is great," Wyszkowski says.  "Because they had a great time at the prom.  It was nice.  The after-prom party was heavily attended.  The kids are having a great time, and hopefully this message carries through to graduation parties they'll be going to this summer, and hanging out with friends and everything like that.  Hey -- keep that cell phone aside."

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