Students get sobering warning before prom season

Crash site
In this Sunday April 25, 2010 file photo, law enforcement officers stand behind flowers left at the scene where six people were killed in a two-car crash on Highway 95 about a half-mile west of downtown Cambridge, Minn.
AP Photo/St. Paul Pioneer Press, Chris Polydoroff

When a crash this weekend killed six people near Cambridge, Minn., it jarred Melissa Hoese, who lives about 20 miles away.

"You think about all your best friends and say 'Oh my gosh, what are they doing?,' " said Hoese, a senior at Princeton High School.

None of the teens in this weekend's crash attend Princeton schools, but Hoese and her classmates have dealt with tragedy before. During 2006 and 2007, seven Princeton students died in six different car crashes.

Officials have not determined whether alcohol was a factor in the weekend crash, but the State Patrol has said the smell of alcohol was coming from the car.

That has Hoese, 17, thinking ahead to Friday -- prom night in Princeton -- and the possibility that some of her classmates will celebrate by drinking illegally -- and driving.

With prom just days away, school officials in Princeton, and across Minnesota, are reminding students about safe driving. School leaders say they hope this year's messages will especially hit home, given the run of deadly crashes in recent days. The seven teenagers were among 11 people who died in four separate crashes across the state over the weekend.

CAR CRASH REENACTMENT AN ATTENTION GRABBER

Warning teenagers not to drive drunk is a message that bears repeating, Hoese said.

"People are kind of stupid around prom," she said. "I know a couple of my -- not close friends, but people I talk to -- who have done it and they say 'Oh, it's not going to stop me. I've gotten away with it so many times that I might as well keep doing it.'"

Hoese, president of her school's chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions, said it is helping organize an event Thursday that was planned before this weekend's crashes. Students and others will re-enact a car crash in front of school, with paramedics responding to screaming victims and even airlifting someone away.

The event grabs student attention, Princeton Superintendent Rick Lahn said.

"People are kind of stupid around prom."

"It's kind of a surreal thing to watch, even though you know they're actors and it's not real," Lahn said. "We're not trying to scare people, but they need to see the reality of what a serious car accident looks like."

The demonstration is similar to a real-life version of the graphic movies shown in driver's education classes.

There's also a prom this weekend at Cambridge-Isanti High School, where several of the weekend crash victims attended. Two of the school's students died. A third is the 16-year-old driver who was in her third week as a fully licensed driver.

Principal Mitchell Clausen said no crash re-enactment is planned for his school. But he said it's important to urge students to make good decisions, even as they grieve.

"I'm hoping to, once the dust settles a little bit, to talk about safety and seat belts and that kind of stuff -- as we do every year," Clausen said. "But I think it will kind of hit home more this year than any other year."

PARENTS HAVE A ROLE, TOO

Safety advocates say there's only so much a school can do. Parents have to play an even more important role by talking to their children about driving.

When a student at Sibley High School in Mendota Heights is caught with drugs or alcohol in or out of school, Ann Lindberg meets with them for counseling. Even though it teenagers often seem bent on ignoring parents, she said, parents need to set expectations for teenagers, not just about drinking, but for any number of risky activities.

"They need to know that you're not OK with them drinking -- however your viewpoint as a parent might be," said Lindberg, the school's chemical health coordinator. "The kids really do listen to their parents. All the studies have always shown that."

Car crashes are still the number one killer of young people between the ages of 15 and 20 in the United States. But the overall number of deaths -- both nationally and in Minnesota -- has steadily declined over the past decade.

In Minnesota, before this past weekend's accidents, a driver under 18 had been involved in a fatal accident only twice this year.

State officials credit the so-called 'graduated licensing laws' for the drop. Those laws include a ban on driving between midnight and 5 a.m. for those who've had their license less than six months. The driver of the weekend crash in Cambridge broke that law, the State Patrol said.

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