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Student project puts face on impact of drugs and alcohol

South Whidbey High School students Levi Sawyers, Alexa Brewster and Kyle Hoch joined 45 other students in front of the school as their fellow classmates head for their buses. The students had their face painted white and wore a black T-shirt that said, “I just died...” - Jeff VanDerford / The Record
South Whidbey High School students Levi Sawyers, Alexa Brewster and Kyle Hoch joined 45 other students in front of the school as their fellow classmates head for their buses. The students had their face painted white and wore a black T-shirt that said, “I just died...”
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford / The Record

LANGLEY - South Whidbey High School senior Tyler Richardson set out this year to find a way of making an impact on his classmates about substance abuse.

By all accounts, he did just that.

For his senior culminating project, Richardson researched the effects of drugs and alcohol. It didn’t take long before he was swimming in mind-numbing statistics collected over the years by well-meaning adults - accurate, relevant and scary but still mind-numbing.

"I wanted to find a method to bring all those numbers down to a level where they could be meaningful," he said.

One statistic leapt out. Every 30 minutes of every day, a young person dies from an alcohol or drug-related accident. But how to translate that to a student body bombarded by warnings ad nauseam from schools, parents and others?

So with the help of sophomore Alexa Brewster, teacher Ann Johnson and Principal Rob Prosch, Richardson started to come up with a plan.

Earlier this month, he contacted 48 fellow students at random and asked them to sign a contract without divulging the contents to anyone, even their parents.

None of the 48 declined to take part.

Each agreed to be taken out of their classrooms, a few students every 30 minutes, by Island County Sheriff Deputy Laura Price. The number, 48 in all, represents the number of kids who die from drugs or alcohol every day in the United States.

Each also agreed to remain silent for the balance of the day after they were picked.

They were then escorted to a room and asked to write a letter.

The letter began: "Dear Mom and Dad, I died today and this is what I never got to tell you..."

Then each donned a black T-shirt and painted their faces white. When the bell rang, all 48 were standing in front of the school — no talking, no smiles, no waves — as the student body came out to board their buses.

Some kids laughed and a few made jokes until they read what the T-shirts said: "I just died..."

At an assembly the following day, Richardson explained to the entire school the significance of what happened and what it meant.

Richardson told his classmates he had to overcome his own personal demons and that he could have been one of the kids writing that letter, but for real.

"Last year, I was expelled from school for drugs, went into re-hab, came back and I'm graduating next month," he said. "But it could have gone a different direction for me. I know that and I want them to know that, too."

At the assembly, seven volunteers came up on stage to read the letters they had written - Chris Britton, Veronica Brown, Kylie DeMartini, Steven Gabelein, Shayna Grant, Josh Moody and Colton Wilson. There was total silence from their friends in the audience as they spoke.

In his letter, Gabelein thanked his parents for simple things. His mom for always writing something on his sack lunch and his dad for telling him to look both ways before making a turn.

"I believe Tyler helped the majority of us think hard about our plans for the future," Gabelein said later. "It was very moving."

District Superintendent Fred McCarthy showed a video that Richardson recorded based on the experience of McCarthy's own son, Pat.

"Last Thanksgiving, my son was in a tragic car accident in Bellingham," McCarthy said. "The driver had been drinking and he was killed; my son was seriously injured. I shared this story with them in the hope they will avoid making bad decisions. My son is OK but it was a life-changing experience for him."

Indeed, it may have been one of the most powerful assemblies in school history, according to the school's principal. So much so, the school had counselors standing by just in case as a precaution.

"My clear impression was that students walked away thinking hard about their future decisions," Prosch said.

Over the following weekend, Sheriff Mark Brown reported getting several e-mails from parents saying how effective the assembly was.

Richardson said the reaction was better than he expected.

"It was very emotional, lots of crying, and I suspect I may have touched a few kids which was one of my goals."

One statistic Richardson urged his mates to consider carefully: 58 percent of accidents involving young people happen between mid-April and mid-June.

So far, they got the message.

"Nobody died at our prom Saturday night," Richardson said.

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