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From fun day to one of mourning


Yesterday was Pajama Day at Perry Hall High School - the start of a school spirit week that culminates with the annual Snow Dance on Saturday night.

It was supposed to be a fun day after the long holiday weekend. Instead, it became a day of mourning when students and teachers learned that the two teen-agers killed in a car crash Monday on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway were juniors at the school.

Ashley M. Samuels and her best friend, Rachel M. Betts - both 16 - were honor students who were considering teaching careers, teachers and classmates said.

"They both knew they wanted to help people," said history teacher Leah Wienholt. "There were a lot of tears today - kids saying they can't believe they saw them Thursday and won't see them again."

News of the girls' deaths invigorated a continuing debate in Annapolis over whether keeping teen-agers out of the cars of the state's youngest drivers would save lives.

At a House of Delegates committee hearing yesterday, police officers, doctors, highway safety experts and parents testified in favor of a bill that would prohibit young drivers from transporting other minors in their cars for the first six months that they have a license. None spoke more forcefully than Lynn Gerber Smith.

Smith, an emergency room nurse at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, said her experiences tending to a steady stream of young accident victims prompted her to restrict her 17-year-old son's driving privileges in the same manner the bill would.

"I don't let him drive other kids around," Smith said. "We've seen what happens too many times. Children test the limits all the time."

Kathryn Orosz of Calvert County offered her painful personal story to help persuade lawmakers to approve the bill.

Five years ago, Orosz' son, Michael Keith Vito, 17, died in a crash while driving with his girlfriend and younger stepsister. Only his sister survived.

"My son was a typical new driver," Orosz said afterward. "He could not turn cleanly, he was uncertain with the pedals, If I had my way, I would say [teen drivers] should spend at least a year at minimum with no passengers except for their parents," not just six months.

1st Sgt. Tom Woodward of the Maryland State Police said he picked up the morning newspaper and saw the article about the two girls. "The next thing I did was check the driver's license record," he said.

He learned that Ashley Samuels had been licensed to drive less than two months earlier. "That sort of made the whole point of why I am here supporting this legislation," he added.

But Ashley's mother, Alease Samuels, said last night that she doesn't support the bill, noting that friends also can help young drivers. "Experienced drivers have accidents, too," said Samuels, a teacher at Chapel Hill Elementary School on Joppa Road. "I'll never know what happened because my daughter isn't here to tell me."

Rachel's father, Chris Betts, said last night that he was unaware of the legislation. Earlier, he had described his eldest daughter as a "respectful" girl who never got into trouble.

Samuels said her daughter - her only child - wanted to become an elementary school teacher. "She was a very loving girl, and she was very intelligent," Samuels said.

Brittany Southall, a Perry Hall High sophomore, described Ashley as "real cool, very sweet. She had something going for her."

Southall, who is 15 and enrolled in a driver-education class that starts next month, said she was worried about getting her license. "They were so young," she said.

State police continued yesterday to investigate the crash. It appears that the teen-age driver was at fault, said Sgt. Thornnie Rouse, a police spokesman.

Ashley, of Chapeltowne Circle in Perry Hall, was behind the wheel of a 2004 Toyota Corolla and Rachel, of the 5600 block of Gunpowder Road in White Marsh, was next to her, police said. With the day off from school for Presidents Day, they had been shopping.

The girls were headed northbound on the parkway near the Interstate 895 interchange when Samuels switched lanes in front of a taxicab whose driver was unable to avoid hitting the car's rear bumper as she hit the brakes, police said. The Toyota crossed over the median and collided nearly head-on with a bus that was empty except for the driver, police said. The drivers of the bus and cab were not seriously injured.

Yesterday at Perry Hall High, first-period teachers read a statement from Principal Brian Gonzalez, and crisis counselors were in the classrooms.

"They both had so many plans," said Wienholt, the history teacher, who had Rachel in one of her classes this year and Ashley in a class last year.

"Ashley was very outgoing," Wienholt said. "She was bright, a leader. Rachel was more soft-spoken. ... She was a hard worker. And she was a friend to a lot of people."

Ashley was a member of the honor society and had been accepted into an internship program for her senior year to spend two periods each day at an elementary school, guidance counselor Nancy Eckels said.

Rachel, who told teachers and counselors that she wanted to teach elementary school, planned to take classes at Essex Community College during her senior year, Eckels said.

More than 50 students sought counseling in the guidance office, and 2,300 letters were sent home to Perry Hall parents informing them of the girls' deaths.

"They were two terrific girls - well-liked by their teachers and peers," Gonzalez said. "Both had great smiles."

Students said they could feel the tension in the halls yesterday. Some students were wearing their pajamas in observance of spirit week. But students said everyone seemed quieter.

"A lot of people have been crying," said sophomore Michelle Zorn. "It's been a really sad day here. ... They were best of friends."

Visitation for Ashley Samuels is scheduled for 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday at James A. Morton & Sons Funeral Home, 1701 Laurens St., Baltimore. Her funeral service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Solid Rock Freewill Baptist Church, 70 E. North Ave., Baltimore.

Visitation for Rachel Betts is scheduled for 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. today and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. tomorrow at Schimunek Funeral Home, 9705 Belair Road, Perry Hall. Her funeral service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at the funeral home.

An article in yesterday's editions gave an incorrect address for the church where Ashley M. Samuels' funeral will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday. Solid Rock Freewill Baptist Church is at 7 E. North Ave., Baltimore.Also, the article gave the wrong day for Rachel M. Betts' funeral. It is scheduled for 10 a.m. tomorrow at Schimunek Funeral Home, 9705 Belair Road, Perry Hall.
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