South Effingham High School juniors and seniors took turns Wednesday trying to walk a straight line for nine steps — while wearing goggles simulating having a blood alcohol content of .25, or three times the legal limit.
Junior Caitlin Jones was so unsteady by the seventh step that Sgt. Brian Mundy of the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office had to catch her by the arm to keep her upright.
“You know when you’re done spinning on a merry-go-round or something like that? It feels like that, like everything is just blurry,” Jones said. “I couldn’t even see the line, really. Or my feet.”
It was one of the exercises during the “teen maze” at SEHS, to show teenagers the consequences of decisions they make. The message resonates particularly now, with South Effingham’s prom Saturday night and graduation just a few weeks away.
“Especially with it being so close to prom, they’re going to think about that they saw today,” said SEHS sophomore Erin Goudeau, one of the student volunteers who helped organizers with the program.
Set up in the school gym, the maze presented students with a variety of obstacles — such as drinking, doing drugs or getting pregnant — that could prevent or delay their high school graduation. At the end, the students who made smart decisions graduated, while others suffered worse fates — dropping out, going to jail or dying.
At one station of the maze, students wrote their own eulogy. At another, they went before Judge Rhonda Sexton to be sentenced for crimes. At the final stop, volunteer Archie Jenkins, standing beside a coffin, explained autopsy, cremation and embalming procedures.
Jenkins told the students that, though teenagers feel devastated when a classmate dies, they go on with living their lives and making memories. In time, they might even forget the name or face of the student who died young.
“As for the person who’s dead, their days of making memories are over,” Jenkins said.
In a county where several teenagers have died in car crashes in recent years, the day’s strong messages caused some students to break down in tears. Counselors were on hand for students who needed them.
“We were expecting some emotional responses, especially from the deaths that we’ve had even this year,” said organizer and SEHS social worker Erin Woodcock. “It hits close to home for a lot of them.”
After finishing the maze, the students went outside to attempt walking or driving a golf cart while wearing the goggles that simulate being under the influence. Deputy Loren Scholes of the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office had several rough rides with students as they weaved erratically through cones.
“If we save one life or change one mind, it’s well worth it,” Scholes said.
Possibly the most compelling demonstration of the day was a simulated head-on car crash in which three students were injured and one died. The student acting as the driver who caused the wreck told investigators he looked down at his phone “for a second” and drifted into the path of the other car.
The scenario was complete with students wearing fake blood and emergency vehicles arriving with their lights and sirens on. One woman portrayed the distraught mother of the dead teen, screaming as the girl’s body was covered with a sheet.
While most students watched attentively, some snickered or cracked jokes during the car crash simulation.
“I think it showed everyone what truly, really happens,” said SEHS student Abby Reinholt. “They may joke around about it, but in reality they really see what happens and how people feel when these choices are made.”
This was the first time South Effingham hosted a teen maze. The school started a SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) chapter this year, and since has hosted several programs on making responsible decisions.
Woodcock received grants from Act Out Loud and the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety to assist with hosting the teen maze, but said much of the credit goes to local people and agencies who volunteered their time. The first one onboard was the Department of Juvenile Justice, and several others soon followed.
“It’s definitely a community effort. Everybody has been so involved and so quick to step up,” Woodcock said. “DJJ was the first one that said, ‘It doesn’t matter when it is, just tell us when to be there.’ They see it first-hand with these kids, that they just don’t all seem to get it.”
Other participating agencies included the Effingham Victim/Witness Assistance Program, United Way, 4-H, Family Connection-Communities in Schools and the Rape Crisis Center of the Coastal Empire.
“People care about our kids,” Woodcock said. “That’s what it’s about.”