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Mock Crash has an impact on Lanesboro students

By Mitchell Walbridge

Fri, May 17th, 2013
Posted in Lanesboro Features

Mock crash victim Johanna Bearson had to be extricated as the result of the one-vehicle simulated rollover. She was one of four students involved. Photo by Mitchell Walbridge

By Mitchell Walbridge

“Mothers and daughters have a very special bond. From the moment Sydney was born, she was a true light in my life. Every day was a wonderful day because Sydney was a part of it… Sydney had dreams of becoming a wife and mother someday. Sadly, her dreams will not become a reality. I will never have the pleasure of watching as my little girl walks down the aisle, embracing her dad’s arm as he gives her away. I will never be able to enjoy Sydney’s children, my grandchildren.”

“Her beautiful face will only be visible in pictures from this point forward. This world will never know the true goodness and generous contributions Sydney could have made… Sydney will never graduate from high school or venture off to college like her classmates and friends. Sydney will never experience true love and all that goes with it. Sydney will never experience her wedding day or experience the joy and excitement of welcoming a child into this world… We’re blessed with only one life. Let’s live it wisely. God bless the memory of my little girl, Sydney Kay Johnson.”

Sadly, Theresa Johnson’s words above similarly illustrate the emotions of many parents who have lost a child in a car accident. 2011 CDC statistic report 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver, and 387,000 were additionally injured in crashes involving a distracted driver, many of them being young adults. As if keeping intoxicated individuals out of behind the wheel wasn’t challenging enough, there’s the new danger of cell phones involving both texting and talking while driving.

In any student’s high school career he or she will read thousands of pages, write dozens of papers, sit through hours of lectures, and be tested on learned information repeatedly. As important as gaining this knowledge is, some of the most valuable lessons that a student learns happens outside the classroom through pure observation. The morning of Friday, May 10 was one example for the students of Lanesboro High School as the school’s chapter of the SADD organization (Students Against Destructive Decisions) presented a mock crash and criminal trial.

At 9:15 am students and teachers were paged from their classrooms, and they walked from the school to the Lanesboro football field. Upon arrival students and school staff encountered a horrifying and realistic scene of a one-car rollover involving four fellow Lanesboro seniors including ejected passengers Sydney Johnson and Linnea Thiss, vehicle-bound passenger Johanna Bearson, and entrapped driver Erik Peterson.

Within seven minutes the Fillmore County deputies along with Preston/Lanesboro law enforcement officers were on the scene of the crash. Within minutes of law enforcement arrival the Lanesboro Fire Department and the Lanesboro Ambulance were also on the scene to assist. Throughout the entire crash scene, Brenda Pohlman, a health educator of Fillmore County Public Health, narrated the response process to the school audience.

After extricating Peterson and Bearson from the car with the help of the Jaws of Life, Deputy Jesse Grabau conducted field sobriety tests on Peterson, who was then taken into custody. Emergency crews stabilized Thiss, who was apparently suffering from a neck injury after striking an electric pole. Johnson, who had been ejected several more feet from the car, was determined to be deceased. Johnson’s mother, Theresa Johnson, also made an appearance on scene to identify her daughter. Approximately forty minutes later Mayo One landed to aid in rapid transport.

Observing this traumatic scenario did not end with the conclusion of the crash scene. Students then met at the Lanesboro Community Center for a mock trial, State of Minnesota v. Erik Peterson. The Honorable Robert Benson presided over the trial with Brett Clarke, Lanesboro’s High School Principal, acting as the prosecuting attorney and Ethan Simonson, high school history instructor, as the defense attorney.

Testimony was given by Thiss, who was paralyzed from her neck injury, Bearson, Peterson, and Deputy Grabau. Grabau reported Peterson had a reported blood alcohol level of 0.18%, more than twice the legal limit and that texting also had played a role in the crash. Also, statements were read by mothers Kathy Thiss and Theresa Johnson before Judge Benson completed the sentencing. In the end Peterson was sentenced to 120 months in the state prison and a fine of $5,000 plus restitution for one count of Criminal Vehicular Homicide. Peterson was also convicted and sentenced for one count of Criminal Vehicular Injury, which carried a sentence of 60 months in the state prison and a $3,000 fine plus restitution. The sentences were to be served concurrently.

Students, without a doubt, learned a lot the morning of May 10. From the initial crash scene to witnessing court proceedings, Judge Benson said it the best, stating, “When you drive a motor vehicle, you’re behind one of the most dangerous instruments that we have in our society, and when it’s misused, somebody dies…somebody is injured.” Judge Benson also pointed out the dangers of texting while driving, “The average reading or sending a short text takes about 4.6 seconds. That’s 4.6 seconds that you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing… and in 4.6 at 55 mph, you’ll go the length of a football field without paying attention to maintaining control of the motor vehicle.”

According to Judge Benson, crashes that involve distractions such as cell phone usage cause accidents of 23 percent more severity, as demonstrated earlier that morning. The best way to armor against these kinds of crashes is to educate drivers at a young age because the decisions they make now will affect them for the rest of their lives.

SADD Advisor Rochelle Gathje reflected on what students have learned the most from observing the mock crash and trial, “Many of the students took away the seriousness of distracted driving. For example, how fast one text can lead to an accident. Students understand that even small decisions, such as getting into a car with a distracted or impaired driver, can have a huge impact.” Senior Kirsten Ruen stated, “No one should ever have to go through that, especially family members. This can happen to anyone by making one bad choice.”

As much as the observing students learned just by watching, the four actors are also changed. Sydney Johnson, who ended up deceased from the impact of the rollover, expressed how this has affected her, “It was such a hard experience for me because having my mom participate was a wakeup call that it could happen. I never want to put my mom or the rest of my family through that.”

The Lanesboro SADD Chapter, directed by high school biology instructor Rochelle Gathje and school psychologist Heidi Johnson, has been planning this year’s mock crash for months. Organization got underway as early as September with monthly meetings. As the event drew nearer, daily tasks had to be completed to make the operation successful.

Community meetings were a big part of the planning stages. Many agencies were involved in making the mock crash execute smoothly. The Lanesboro Ambulance, the Lanesboro Fire Department, the City of Lanesboro, the Lanesboro High School journalism class, music department, staff, and administration, Mayo One, the Johnson and Thiss families, Judge Robert Benson and the staff at the Fillmore County Courthouse, Herman’s of Fountain who donated the transportation of the vehicle, the Fillmore County Sheriff’s Department, and Brenda Pohlman of Fillmore County Public Health all played a significant role.

Full video of Lanesboro’s mock crash and mock court trial is accessible at the Fillmore County Journal’s website, www.fillmorecountyjournal.com.

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