Students caught in the moment
Published: Thursday, May 16th, 2013
“There was blood. Lots of blood. And screaming. Lots of screaming,” one freshman student said, describing the scene he witnessed earlier in the day. “It was scary. I’ll definitely think before I drink and drive.”
Similar comments were shared on Wednesday, May 8, when 155 freshman students from Custer, Edgemont, Hill City and Hot Springs gathered at the Custer Armory for Freshman Impact: Caught in the Moment, a one-day prevention program giving students the chance to see up close and learn through hands-on activities the possible consequences of wrong choices and their lasting effects.
“I saw positive interaction among students and with students and law enforcement officials,” said Todd Albertson, South Dakota Highway Patrol officer and coordinator for the Southern Hills program. “It was a great team-building and bonding experience for the students and they’ve asked great questions.”
Freshman Impact: Caught in the Moment started in 2006 in Wall. The first event saw 76 students in attendance. By this fall, over 1,000 students will have participated in the program.
“Consequences can affect students their whole lives. That’s what we’re here to show them,” said Rick McPherson, founder of the program.
McPherson founded the program after moving from Ohio to Wall, where he saw the need for a positive program.
“Rodeo is big out here and I saw a lot of kids drinking,” he said. “That’s all they knew and that’s all there was to do. I saw the opportunity to do something different.”
After speaking with a friend, attorney Pat Carlson, he presented the idea for Freshman Impact to various law enforcement agencies and they immediately signed on.
“A lot of the people here today are all volunteering their time because they believe in this,” McPherson said. “Students are starting to make their own decisions at this age.”
One of McPherson’s favorite thing about the program is the feedback he hears from students, counselors and law enforcement.
“I like the feeling I get when I see kids get help,” he said. “I hear from counselors that the students are excited to be here. I hear from law enforcement and emergency responders they are excited to volunteer. The program has an impact and I love that everyone is excited.”
Earlier in the day, students from the four schools were split into groups and participated in team exercises. Some of the stations showed students what it looks and feels like if they were driving under the influence, how emergency personnel would get into a vehicle after it crashed and what EMTs do in the back of an ambulance. Emergency responders, such as the fire departments and ambulance services, were also able to give their cadets training in the field without additional pressure.
“I like seeing the kids involved and learning something,” said Clay Kartak, South Dakota Highway Patrol. “I hope they continue to make good decisions as they go on.”
“I think this brings the community together and builds relationships,” said Matthew Gildeleon, EMT with Hill City Ambulance Service. “I hope the kids realize the effort and realize why we’re showing them the reality of their choices.”
In the afternoon, Hot Springs junior and senior students performed the mock crash, which began with seven girls attending their graduation and talking about a party they were attending later that night. After spending the night drinking, the group decides to drive back home. Not only was the driver, Scout Gambill, driving under the influence, she was distracted by sending text messages from her phone. The car crashed into a brick wall, throwing the passengers in the car through the windshield. Three girls were badly injured while another was killed.
The girls performing the skit were part of the National Honor Society and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) group at Hot Springs High School.
“We were approached about participating in this program and we really wanted to do it,” said Jordan Tierney, one of the victims. “It’s been a great opportunity. I hope they all learn something.”
Students watched as ambulance crews, fire departments and law enforcement officials responded to the accident. EMTs rushed to the injured victims and loaded them into the ambulances while a deputy sheriff gave Gambill a sobriety test and questioned the other victims. Students silently watched the coroner place the body of Shelby Theilmann into the back of the hearse before attending her funeral.
Afterwards, Seventh Judicial Circuit judge Janine Kern presided over Gambill’s trial. Kern has been involved with Freshman Impact since its inception.
“For me, it provides a chance to interact with many professions. All of the people here — fire departments, law enforcement, ambulance service, lawyers, the court system — they all care for these kids and worry about them,” she said. “This also gives them an insight of what the result and consequences from their decisions can be.”
Gambill was charged with one count of vehicular manslaughter, three counts of vehicular battery and one count of driving under the influence. Since she and her lawyer, Chris Beesley, agreed to a plea bargain of admitting guilt, her DUI charge was dropped.
“This is a great program,” Kern said. “Sadly, I see many cases regarding vehicular homicide and battery. They do occur and my hope is for these freshmen to think about the end result when they are faced with temptation.”
Maximum time in jail for vehicular manslaughter in the state of South Dakota is 15 years. Vehicular battery is 10 years and a $20,000 fine for each count. All together, Gambill faced 45 years in a state penitentiary with a $90,000 fine. After hearing statements, Gambill was sentenced to serve nine years in the state penitentiary and pay $16,556 in funeral, court and medical costs. After release from jail, Gambill was sentenced to serve 250 hours of community service.
“We do see these accidents happen and I hope the students take away something and learn,” said Tracy Kelley, Custer County state’s attorney. “Nobody wants to see you go through this. Make good and safe decisions.”
“There are consequences for you and the people in the car with you,” Beesley told the students. “It starts with you. Make the right choices.”
“This really benefits our youth,” said Jackie Conlon, EMT with Hot Springs Ambulance Service. “It’s a great opportunity for freshman to learn about decisions they make and their consequences. It’s our focus to teach them that this can happen. We all want it to make an impact.”
Students also heard from Joyce Glynn and her experience with drinking and driving. Glynn’s son, Michael, was killed in an alcohol-related accident a few years ago. Michael was thrown from the car and suffered traumatic brain damage. A few days later he was declared brain dead.
“I had so many questions for him, but he never woke up. And I never got my answers,” Glynn said. “Think about the choices you make.”
“I hope each student takes home something from Freshman Impact,” McPherson said. “When they’re faced with issues or tough decisions, I hope they remember the program and what they saw and I hope they make the right choice.”
Reactions from students about the group exercises and mock crash were positive and thoughtful.
“I’ve learned impaired driving — like drinking and driving or texting and driving — is a big no-no,” said Mykelsi Schnose, Hot Springs.
“It’s really important to stay calm if you have been in an accident,” said Kyla Oster, Hot Springs. “That really helps the first responders.”
“Be safe in whatever you are doing,” said Lexy Prehein, Hot Springs. “It’s really up to you.”
“I’ve learned to never take safety for granted,” said Alex Engstrom, Custer.
“Don’t drink and stay away from drugs,” said Chastin Kindt, Custer. “Really, protect yourself.”
“I’ve learned about the dangers of different drugs and alcohol,” said Garrison Lhotak, Hill City. “Times have changed and we need to be safer.”
“This is one impact they can take in life and make the correct decision,” Albertson said. “It’s all about making the right decision at the right time. I hope they take that away from the program.”
Click Here To See More Stories Like This