This article originally appeared in the Tuesday, March 19, 2013 issue of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
By Barbara Solow
In a packed house at the Easthampton High School Little Theater last Thursday morning, students were pin-drop quiet as they listened to Jeremy Becker, a member of the class of 2007.
Becker told students about how he had been drinking one night in 2008 when he asked his 18-year-old friend Joseph “J.J.” Dushane Jr., to go for a drive with him. Some hours later, Becker woke up in the hospital and learned Dushane had been killed in a car crash on Route 5 in Holyoke.
“He passed away in the car I was driving,” Becker said. “That’s something I’ll always live with.”
Becker went on to serve a year of a two-and-a-half-year jail sentence after pleading guilty to charges of motor vehicle homicide while under the influence of alcohol and reckless driving.
These days, he works to prevent others from a similar fate by telling his story. And, judging from the hushed response of students in the EHS theater, his message hits home.
“It’s a risk you take every time you get in a car drunk,” Becker said to the students.
History teacher Brian Brown remembered having Becker in his classes.
“Jeremy’s a bright guy, he was popular and played sports,” Brown said from the podium at the assembly. “You never know who this will happen to, who will be affected.”
Becker’s talk was part of a student-organized Prevention Awareness Week, which began March 11 and wraps up today at Easthampton High.
The idea arose after a well-liked high school administrator was arrested recently on drunken driving charges.
The school community was shocked and saddened when Vice Principal Ann Beauregard was arrested last month by West Springfield police on charges of operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol (second offense), a marked lanes violation, and driving without a license. Beauregard, who pleaded not guilty to those charges, remains on paid leave pending a May court date.
In the aftermath of her arrest, EHS Principal Vito Perrone approached students, looking for insight about how to help the community process the bad news.
Their answer was a schoolwide Prevention Awareness Week that kicked off last Monday hosted by the high school’s Students Against Destructive Decisions group. Events have included workshops, information tables, and other activities along the theme of helping teens “Make the Right Choices.”
The week culminates in an all-school assembly today on achieving well-being. A wall of positive messages written by students will also be on view in the cafeteria and winners of a contest to decorate classroom doors with similar messages will be announced.
SADD member Bryan Delaney said club members wanted to create an event that would both inform and inspire classmates.
“We wanted to educate all groups,” said Delaney, an EHS sophomore. “We had a lot of ideas for talking about underage drinking and driving and for the underclassmen, talking about self-confidence.”
For one of the confidence-boosting activities, club member and EHS senior Emily Dyer created “Smile Punch” T-shirts and stickers for students and faculty to wear to encourage them to give each other compliments.
In one of a series of workshops students rotated through last week, volunteer peer educators from Mount Holyoke College helped teens take part in role-play activities to practice intervening with friends who might be drinking or using drugs.
“If you’re going to be intervening, what do you need to keep in mind?” Karen Jacobus, Mount Holyoke’s director of health education, asked a crowd of ninth graders gathered in the school cafeteria. “Try to consider what you bring to that situation, what your skills are.”
After students wrote down what they might say to convince a friend to stop drinking, they switched roles, taking up the conversation from the point of view of the drinker.
“It’s really good to raise awareness,” said freshman Emily Baker, as she penned a response on her paper.
“I feel like I’ve had this conversation before,” said fellow ninth grader Kaytianna Ruiz.
Students also heard from classmates about how they’d coped with alcohol and drug abuse by family members.
EHS health and physical education teacher Nancy Dunn, who advises the SADD group, urged students to take stock of their own inner resources.
Referring to the pledge wall, she said, “Sign it and share some of the things you do well.”
EHS senior Chanel Dillard said the personal stories had made an impact.
“It was touching,” she said as she left Becker’s talk in the theater en route to another workshop. “I didn’t expect to hear such personal stuff.”