As graduation nears, local police work with teens to drive sober and safe

Staff writer

Mary Rocheleau wrote her own obituary on the morning of April 11. The 17-year-old said she wanted to attend Lee University in Tennessee and become a school teacher.

That’s a reality she’ll likely still experience. Rocheleau wrote her obituary along with 11 of her classmates to show the loss drinking and driving can bring to those around her.

In an alternate reality where the York High School senior drank and drove, Rocheleau died. The York County School Division, York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office and York County Fire and Life Safety have pushed students to consider that reality as part of their annual program to stymie drunk and distracted driving.

On April 16, students were able to see what it was like to lose a friend, a teammate, a classmate.

The Grim Reaper collected 12 students in the middle of their classes as York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office deputies read the student’s obituary to those remaining.

The group of students were taken to a classroom and put on makeup to look as if they’d been in a car accident.

“It’s really profound,” Rocheleau said with pale makeup and crud on her face. “It shows something like this can happen and that there’s actually consequences.”

York County Fire and Life Safety Assistant Chief Jeffrey Payne has had to respond to many calls during his more than 20 years as a firefighter.

Every crash haunts him. He has seen entire families killed.

“Any fatality is sad,” Payne said. “I guess the hard part is we know (first), and we have to tell the families.”

The school played a fake 911 call over the public announcement system and students congregated outside the school to see a mocked-up drunk driving accident that showed two of their peers dead — one dead in the crash and one deemed brain dead at the hospital.

The pressure campaign against youth drunk and distracted driving is being fought in the hallways, in the classrooms, and in the hearts of parents and students alike.

While York has the most aggressive campaign to get kids to stay sober at the wheel, Williamsburg and James City County also look to tackle the issue in the classroom.

Since 2012 in Williamsburg-James City County schools, James City County police officer Dan Jackson has taught a course once each semester to each school’s driver’s education classes, according to department spokeswoman Stephanie Williams.

Jackson’s course aims to teach teenagers the effect of alcohol on the body, what a DUI investigation would look like and the legal ramifications of driving drunk, Williams said.

The department also works to raise students’ awareness that every 30 minutes, someone is killed in an alcohol-related vehicle crash, Williams said.

At a high school before prom and graduation, James City police perform a similar mocked-up crash as the program in York County.

“A mock crash with student actors is staged with a realistic response from police, fire and medics to demonstrate the severity of driving under the influence,” Williams said.

While there aren’t any high schools in the City of Williamsburg, there is the College of William and Mary.

For the Williamsburg Police Department, that means an emphasis on enforcement and continued efforts to convince people to take a taxi rather than drive drunk, according to department spokesman John Heilman.

“Our officers vigilantly patrol the streets looking for signs of impaired driving,” Heilman said. “Please, if you decide to drink, plan ahead and call a taxi service or use a designated driver.”

Friday was the last day of class at the college, and the department has prepared extra patrols and recently spoke at a forum urging students to party responsibly.

“We want to ensure that people are adhering to the city's noise ordinance, respecting property, and most importantly drinking responsibly,” Heilman said.

Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.

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