With demonstrations from the Department of Corrections K9s and Georgia Public Safety Training Center instructors, the members of the state Board of Public Safety wanted to convey a few simple messages to Effingham County High School students.
The board, which usually meets in Atlanta, opted to come to ECHS last Thursday, and they brought along representatives from the Department of Public Safety, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Department of Natural Resources and Georgia Public Safety Training Center to help impart their message.
“For these people to come into our school and spend time our kids and educate them on the policies and procedures of public safety and the impact it can have on their lives, it’s astronomical the effect it’s going to have on our school and community,” said ECHS Principal Yancy Ford.
The appearance and presentations at a school aren’t usual board functions, according to vice-chairman Ellis Wood. The governor is the titular chairman.
“This exercise today was strictly intended to try to help students be careful,” Wood said, “that they don’t do something that will affect their later lives. The sole intent is to help students be aware they might not have thought of that might adversely affect them in the future.”
Mark McDonough, the commander of the state Department of Public Safety and the Georgia State Patrol, urged the students to put their phones out of reach if they are driving.
“Y’all text sitting next to each other,” he said. “But when you place this and you behind the wheel of the car, this needs to be put up. Any time you have something that distracts you, if your hands are not on the steering wheel, if your eyes aren’t on the road, you’re 22 times more likely to be in an accident.”
McDonough said there are appropriate times to use the cell phone – particularly if someone finds themselves about to get into a car with a driver who has been drinking.
“Peer pressure in that instance could mean your life,” he said. “Don’t get in the car. That’s when you get this thing and call mommy and daddy to come get you. It has its proper use.”
McDonough also said that the vast majority of encounters between the public and law enforcement officers have positive results and the likelihood of it becoming violent is equivalent to the odds of being struck by lightning.
The majority of stops by law enforcement end with a warning and not a ticket, McDonough added.
“Most of what is being perpetrated is based on a false narrative,” he said. “The odds are so small because we encounter so many people every day and the outcome is a good outcome, not a bad outcome.
"There are those who put forth that the perception is reality. If your perception that your encounter with the police is going to be bad, you’re wrong. Your perception is wrong because facts don’t support it.”
McDonough implored the teens to avoid distractions when they’re driving, especially those from a cell phone or other device, and to be careful on the road.
“Don’t text and drive. Don’t drink and drive,” he urged. “And please, slow down.”
Nelly Miles of the GBI told students not to be taken in by the pretty packages of drugs that come in innocuous-looking wrapping.
“The drug cases we see are all types, shapes, colors, forms,” she said. “We see pills, tablets, we see plant material. We see drugs hidden in food. Our scientists are expertly trained to identify those substances for the presence of an illegal drug.”
Miles also warned students “one hit can take you out,” and the GBI has seen methampethamines in electronic cigarettes. While the state has been successful combating synthetic marijuana, bath salts continue to be a problem. Heroin use also is a persistent concern.
“Heroin is the fastest-rising drug we’re dealing with in the state,” she said.
Lt. Col Jeff Weaver, deputy commander of the DNR, said fall brings two of the state’s favorite pastimes – football and hunting. Weaver encouraged the teens that if they do head for the great outdoors to go hunting to use either a safety strap or safety harness if they are in a tree stand.
“We’ve been teaching tree stand education for years,” he said. “Still, every year, over half of the hunting incidents occur from tree stand falls, improperly putting up a tree stand or a tree stand failing.”
Weaver also explained that there are new laws in effect on the state’s waters. The legal limit for a boating under the influence charge is now .08 blood alcohol content, and a there is a mandatory boater education course for pilots born after Jan. 1, 1988. The law that embodied those changes, Senate Bill 136, was named for two Gwinnett County brothers – Jake and Griffi Prince - who were killed in a 2012 boating accident on Lake Lanier.
“Forever more the Prince brothers will be synonymous with those two laws,” Weaver said.
Homer Bryson, the Department of Corrections commissioner, introduced himself as the man the students didn’t want to meet in a professional setting.
Bryson also asked how many of the students planned not to graduate from high school.
“If you do, I need to get a good look at you, because I’m probably going to be seeing you in the future,” he said.
When he was a deputy in Ware County more than 30 years, Bryson was working at the jail one night and decided to pull the files on all the inmates there, to see how much schooling they had. It averaged to be seventh grade.
“Thirty-four years later, ain’t much has changed,” he said.
The state corrections systems has about 53,000 inmates, Bryson said, and Gov. Nathan Deal’s reforms have put into place educational opportunities and vocational training for when they do get out.
“Get that education, because it gives you options,” he said. “Prison is not a pleasant place. It’s not a fun place. You wouldn’t like it. I promise you, you wouldn’t like it.”
Wood, a Statesboro businessman, and State Patrol Capt. Billy Hitchens met with Ford and Effingham school Superintendent Randy Shearouse this summer about the state board holding its September meeting in Effingham.
“They shared with us the agenda they had on tap,” Ford said. “To be able to come and share real-life experiences with students, leaders of our school, it’s an opportunity you can’t turn down, and we’ll never turn down.”
ECHS social studies teacher Reese Browher, a former probations officer whose students were in attendance for the presentation, hoped the messages got across.
“It absolutely helps,” he said. “I think it will be a positive experience for everyone. We appreciate everyone from the state coming. I think the kids were receptive and hopefully, they’ll make good choices because of it.”