Little Silver, NJ - For the eighth year, Red Bank Regional (RBR) conducted Project Prom to promote their students’ safety during prom weekend. That is the time when national statistics soar for vehicular accidents involving young people and alcohol. The program, organized by RBR’s resource officer Pete Gibson, began with a graphic mock crash and rescue on the high school campus. Seniors were led to their school’s front parking lot to watch a reenactment of a drunk-driving accident.
This year, for the first time, students played roles in the mock crash. Jake Cullinane of Tinton Falls portrayed the drunk driver who was led away in handcuffs by the police from a devastating three-car crash. Two other students, Terrence Scanlon, Lincroft, and Anthony Vogel, Middletown, were cut out of the crashed cars with the Jaws of Life operated by Little Silver and Shrewsbury first responders. Michael’s mother, RBR Administrative Assistance Donna Carotenuto, was spirited into an ambulance after being stabilized in a neck brace. RBR teacher Scott Ferris, portraying a DOA victim, was draped in white sheet camouflage, and solemnly escorted to the hearse, courtesy of the John Day Funeral Home.
But that hour of activity represented just one point in time, the horrific result of a bad decision, which one prolific speaker would soon describe as occurring “in the blink of an eye.” The assembly that followed told the story of what preceded that awful moment and the aftermath of lives inexorably changed.
Joye Jones of Williamstown was described by RBR Student Assistance counselor Lori Todd, as the sweetest lady you would ever meet. The grandmother of seven and mother of three brought along her power point presentation and proceeded to speak with pride of her typical American family, their hopes and their dreams. She touched on her two sons’ families, professions and success. She spent the majority of time, however, talking about her second son, Steven. His dreams would never be realized since his life was taken decades ago at the age of 19. In vivid, exacting detail, aided by slides of a mangled car and accident scene, she described the harrowing last minutes of her son and another teenager’s lives.
The students could visualize the sports car flying along a curved road at over 100 mph, striking a guard rail and careening into a spillway, landing upside down in the water.
“He wasn’t killed by a monster,” she explained, “but by his best friend.”
Her narrative took them from an ominous three am policeman’s appearance at their home to the hospital room where she identified her son’s body. She was sincerely convinced, until that moment, that they had the wrong Steven Jones, because, as she told the students, “Stuff like this doesn’t happen to people like us.”
She added, “But I am here to tell you, it does.”
Many students dappled their tearing eyes as her pain was palatable to all, a pain that all these years later, they realized, never, ever goes away.
What followed was just as poignant. A young man, only a few years older than the students’ he addressed, came to speak at the school assembly accompanied by another heartbroken mother, his own.
Eric Pereira of Jackson told the students that he had sat in their seats just four years ago. He was a Stars Scholar and was attending Rutgers University. But instead of graduating college, in a few short weeks, he would begin a seven year prison sentence for second degree vehicular manslaughter. While driving drunk in 2011, Eric killed the father of five and injured three other people.
It was Eric Pereira’s choice to speak to the students according to his defense attorney, Mitch Ansell, who also addressed the seniors on the legal consequences of underage drinking and driving.
Eric told the students, “It isn’t anything we think about or plan on happening. It just happens. It’s a horrible nightmare. There is no waking up. It is reality.” He added, “There is now a wife without a husband, five kids without a father. So many things this man worked hard for; things he wanted to do with the remainder of his long life, he can’t do because of me. I took it all away from him, just because I made a decision to drive drunk.”
The message continued all week at RBR with other emergency personnel from the three sending towns of Red Bank, Little Silver and Shrewsbury visiting the student’s health classes to reinforce the messages given that day. Toward the end of the week, and on the day of the prom, Officer Gibson conducted a drunken driving exercise where students don fatal vision goggles” which simulates intoxication as they try to navigate an obstacle course on a golf cart. They learned they could not.
All speakers, including Officer Gibson, explained that they wanted the students to have a wonderful prom, and to enjoy this fun, carefree time of their lives. However, the speakers heeded, and even begged that whatever they did, they should separate drinking from driving.