A remarkable thing happened at Woodlawn High School in Cleveland County on Friday morning.
At least it would likely seem to be remarkable to the casual observer that a group of high school students could — with the help of a veritable army of first responders from throughout the area and from as far afield as Camden — create a jarringly realistic two-car accident scene that left around 200 teenagers staring in wide-eyed attention.
Unlike the stereotypical teenager, who is invariably described with words including selfish, lazy, indulgent and self-destructive, the young people from Woodlawn High and Rison High School were both active participants in and an engaged audience for an exercise intended to keep them alive to see the day after prom night.
Setup for a crash
At exactly 9:30 a.m. Woodlawn High School principal Jeffery Wylie turned on his microphone and began to speak to the students within the confines of the school gymnasium.
“The reason for today’s event is something that is close to my heart and to a lot of other people’s hearts,” Wylie said. “Any time you can save a life — particularly a young life — you have done something incredibly important.”
Wylie cautioned the students that what they were about to experience was intense and as such was a voluntary exercise.
“If it’s going to be tough on you then you don’t have to stay here,” Wylie said. “We’re all in this together.”
“Our prom here at Woodlawn is next Friday night and Rison’s is April 19,” Wylie said. “I want to re-emphasize to you the importance of making the right choice on prom night and every night. You all are 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 years old. You’re invincible. You think it won’t happen to you. I’m not fussing at you here because I know that’s just how it is when you’re a teenager.”
Wylie recounted his own brush with death as a teenager.
“I was 16 and my oldest brother is 15 years older than me,” Wylie said. “He had a green Ford pickup truck. Once I was riding with my brother and his wife and he asked me if I could drive. I said sure. Well, he said just slide over and change places with me. As I tried to slide over my foot got caught in the steering wheel and we rolled over six times. I was in the hospital for 31 days. There was no alcohol involved then; just loose gravel and stupidity. Just think about what could have happened if alcohol was involved?”
A voice of fear
Wylie set the scene for what was about to happen.
“You’re going to hear conversations from two cars with students returning from the prom,” Wylie said.
The first recording was from a car occupied by a male and two females, with the passenger asking the driver to send a text followed by the sound of a crash.
The second recording was from a car occupied by two males and one female and the conversation centered on the four beers already consumed by the driver.
“Are you asleep?” the female could be heard asking the driver. “Watch out, you’re going into the other lane!”
The next sound was punctuated by multiple screams drowned out by the sound of crunching metal and steel and breaking glass.
“This is 911 dispatch what’s your emergency?” the voice of a female dispatcher said over the audio system.
”Please help us! There’s been an accident! Oh my God please help us!,” the frantic, almost unintelligible voice of a female was heard as she talke to the dispatcher.
The frantic young woman managed to tell the dispatcher that the crash had occurred on Highway 63 in front of Woodlawn High School.
The dispatcher then notified the Arkansas State Police, who dispatched a trooper to the scene.
“Help is coming,” the dispatcher assured the still-frantic caller.
The caller was portrayed by Woodlawn junior Shelby Montgomery.
At the scene
Students were then ushered out of the gym and across campus to the accident site that had been set up on a gravel drive adjacent to the school athletic field.
A green four-door Kia Rio passenger car — its front end crumpled — pointed west; facing it lay the crumpled remains of a maroon Mercury Cougar.
The eyes of everyone were immediately drawn to that Cougar — or more accurately to the still, apparently lifeless body of a teenage boy, junior Kyle Hodges, lying sprawled across the hood, his lower torso hidden from view still inside the vehicle.
A young woman in a white prom dress — Shelby Montgomery — stumbled through the scene, alternately sobbing and screaming.
Soon the sound of an emergency siren filled the air, followed quickly by an Arkansas State Police cruiser that arrived on scene from the south.
As the trooper got out of his car a young man in a brown tuxedo — junior Jacob Richardson — emerged from behind the Cougar in an apparent daze.
An EASI ambulance and a fire truck from the Woodlawn Fire Department arrived with their crews of paramedics and fireighters.
The firefighters set about removing the passenger-side door of the Cougar as the paramedics draped the young man on the hood in a white sheet, signaling that he was officially deceased.
After the firefighters removed the entire roof of the Cougar, the paramedics set about preparing the young woman in the back seat — junior Megan Howard — for extraction from the car.
The distinctive thumping sound of helicopter rotors in the distance became louder as the Air Evac Lifeteam from Camden arrived on scene to transport Howard.
Student reaction was positive in terms of their impression of the exercise.
“I think this was original and eye-opening,” said Woodlawn freshman Brittany Fugate. “It shows that one bad decision can lead to lasting consequences.”
“It’s very effective,” Woodlawn freshman Sarah Brown said. “If this doesn’t show the kids what can happen then I don’t know what will. My family was affected by a crash involving a drunk driver. We had a funeral for a family member and a drunk driver hit the truck of one of the people in the procession. The collision decapitated the drunk driver and sent the people in the pickup to the hospital. One of them just passed away yesterday.”
A group of young men from Rison High School were gathered at a chain-link fence watching the helicopter prepare to take off. The exercise had special meaning for them because of a traffic accident in August that took the life of classmate Logan Prescott and sent classmates Josh Cook and Justin Ross to the hospital.
“I think it was a really great demonstration and very realistic,” said Rison junior Zachary Reed. “Especially in light of what we went through in August. I hope this makes an impact on the students.”
Rison senior Casey Rodgers was moved by the re-enactment.
“This really hits close to home,” Rodgers said. “The thing is the wreck happened near my house.”
Rison senior Bradley Bell and sophomore Shelton Wood agreed that the re-enactment was a reminder of the accident that took their friend’s life and that the dangers of distracted driving were very clear to them.
“This shows that actions have consequences,” Rison senior Aaron Leopard said.