School’s alternative to Shattered Dreams draws criticism
By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
When the administration at Liberty Hill High School declined to host Shattered Dreams, an anti-drunk driving program featuring graphic imagery, the decision ignited a controversy among some parents in the community.
School administrators say they have chosen to pursue a different approach to educating students on the issue of underage drinking and driving, but not all parents are satisfied.
“I can’t imagine anything that could be more powerful than Shattered Dreams,” said Venesa Montague.
Montague began circulating an online petition last week titled, “Liberty Hill wants Shattered Dreams program.” At press time this week, the petition had collected 437 signatures since Montague first uploaded it on Change.org, Jan. 4th.
Montague regularly does speaking engagements for the advocacy group M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), and four years ago, she gave Liberty Hill students a presentation as part of the last Shattered Dreams program held at the high school, under the administration of former Principal Bobby Mabry.
Current Principal Mario Bye said the decision to opt out this year came out of a group discussion with administrative staff.
“We’ve got two counselors, a district social worker, the school psychologist, and two assistant principals. And all of us talking together, we decided we’d like to take a different approach to how we talk to our kids about drinking and driving,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to think we’re just canceling it and not doing anything, because this is a student safety issue that’s near to my heart.”
Bye said that the Houston area high school where he worked before coming to Liberty Hill in the fall saw more than a few of its students become victims of alcohol-related crashes.
Over two days, Shattered Dreams simulates the aftermath of a mock accident in front of the school. Volunteer students, dressed up in gory makeup and prosthetics to play the role of alcohol-related crash victims, stage the scene around a crumpled car with the help of police and other emergency services. The rest of the student body stands on the sideline to watch the tragic event unfold.
Afterwards, the students are gathered in the auditorium, where speakers such as Montague give a presentation with videos and photographs of carnage from real crash sites.
Montague, who lost her own daughter in a car crash involving a drunk driver, said this kind of imagery is exactly intended to elicit strong reactions.
“When someone dies in a wreck, it isn’t pretty. These kids watch TV and they see gruesome stuff all the time. But this isn’t TV, it’s real. They need to see what’s real so it has an impact, one they won’t forget,” she said.
Bye said his professional staff was not convinced that the program is appropriate this year, given the experiences of students that would attend.
“What’s the most shocking is not necessarily the most effective thing,” he said. “My counselors’ initial concern is that so many kids here have actually lived through this themselves. I don’t mean just the kids who have been in these accidents, but all the friends that know someone who has been in these accidents. They’ve already seen this stuff. They’ve already seen the reality of it. We know we can present our own program in a way that doesn’t have a negative impact on these kids. And it’s more than just one or two.”
The administration’s approach to an anti-drunk driving program will emphasize the role of parents by providing community education nights at the school, organized by the district’s social worker, at which speakers and local authorities will give parents “better tools for conversations with their kids.”
“The most important thing to promote here shouldn’t be, ‘can we shock kids into not drinking.’ It’s parents talking to their kids that’s going to make any actual difference. There’s only so much the school can effectively talk about in the hours we have these kids. Counselors and psychologists I’ve worked with will tell you the same things. The relationship with mom and dad is where kids really form their decision-making process. They can talk to them every night, every weekend, over breaks. I want to give them tools for that.”
In school, Bye wants to use the advisory period, a block of non-class time, to pair small discussion groups of students with local community members who have been affected.
“To me and my counselors,” he continued, “these outweigh anything we could by showing a shocking image to a kid.”
In response, Montague said many parents “don’t have the time, or don’t want to do it. Getting parents to actually participate might not be that easy. They would rather the school do it.
“And the students don’t want to do it either. But I’m sorry. What if you’re sacrificing one or two lives because you’re afraid of what’s going to happen? What if we lose a kid? And the program could have prevented it?” she said.
Montague said the impact from seeing real footage of victims cannot be matched with the discussion-based approach that the administration is proposing.
The petition Montague created has attracted comments of support from people in the surrounding area, as well as some outside it. Many themselves had been affected by previous Shattered Dreams programs held at local high schools, including the 2011 and 2013 ones held at Liberty Hill High School. Others had lost a loved one to an alcohol-related crash, or simply expressed a demand that the school have some preventative program in place.
“Within 24 hours, we had over 400 signatures,” she said. “We’re just trying to get him (Bye) to see that everyone in the community is behind the program.”
The online effort has also included emails addressed personally to Bye.
One such letter from Taiylor Tedford, a 2015 graduate of Liberty Hill High School, reads in part, “To this day my friends and I still talk about some of the speakers that came and shared their personal stories with drinking and driving, and then of course the actual event that took place as well. I know if affected the majority of us and made us think twice before getting behind the wheel and driving.”
Another from Katelyn McClain, Class of 2013, says, “It was a powerful experience that opened my eyes to the realities of drinking and driving. As I near my college graduation, Shattered Dream is still an experience that I think about and one that affects my decisions to this day.”
Bye, who served his first semester at Liberty High School this fall, said at least one local parent he hopes to include in their program originally supported the petition. The parent, Bye said, lost a child in an alcohol-related crash.
“Now that she’s talked to us, and she knows what we’re doing, she changed her mind. I’ve invited her to be a part of our presentation for the kids, if she’s comfortable doing that. Right now she wants to, but it’s difficult for her to talk about, so the timing has to be right. The kids will know whose mom it was,” he said.
Bye said that the smaller, discussion-based approach emphasizing peers and affected parents would offer an advantage over the Shattered Dreams’ large-scale auditorium presentation.
“In the big group, of 1,100, most kids are not gonna talk. And it’s questionable whether they’ll listen. You’re going to lose a lot of attention. But in the smaller groups, I think we have a chance to be more impactful,” he said.
Montague, however, said she believes this is not the case in her experience speaking at these kind of events.
“I’ve talked to thousands of kids and thousands of adults, and I can tell you when I talk in an auditorium, it’s so quiet you can hear a pin drop. I have 100 percent of their attention. It’s an emotional story, and they’re more willing to listen to a story than be bored with statistics. They’re not gonna talk, they’re gonna listen,” she said.
“Unfortunately, we live in a community where people have been through this,” Bye concluded. “Given that, let’s make an approach where they can share some of their story, make it real for everyone, and do it in small groups where kids actually feel they can be involved in the discussion.”
Bye said that his administration’s intention is to have one program before Spring Break and another before prom.
According to the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, a non-profit dedicated to fighting drunk driving and underage drinking, 1,446 people in Texas have died in drunk driving crashes since 2014. Of those, 193 involved someone under the age of 21 driving while under the influence.