Showing teens where choices lead

The Baltimore Sun

Danielle Crouse took her eyes off the road for three seconds and killed a man. The woman, who spent 16 months in a maximum-security prison, is a bankrupt felon now struggling to take hold of her life.

Crouse told her story to 130 students gathered Wednesday in Anne Arundel County District Court as a cautionary tale.

Five years ago, she got behind the wheel after having had two glasses of wine and a fight with her boyfriend. She reached for her cell phone to call a friend and ran a stop sign. Her victim was a father, a husband and a son.

Crouse, 30, said the response from the community was overwhelming. She went from being a young adult with no history of trouble to being public enemy No. 1 in her community.

"There is so much hate," she said. "I hate me half the time."

Her story was one thing students said they will remember from the program.

"It just hit me all of a sudden," said Jillian Mardesich, a freshman at Chesapeake High School in Pasadena. "Just 3 seconds ... ." That's the point of the Schools in the Court program, a field trip that provides a look at the real-world consequences of drinking and driving, drug use and criminal mischief. Last week, students from government and law classes at Chesapeake and Old Mill high schools took part in the program, which occurs in the spring and fall each year.

District Judge Vincent A. Mulieri started it in 2001 in hopes of educating teenagers about the risks and consequences of drunken driving. The program includes actual court cases and talks by police officers, lawyers and people who have been affected by drunken driving.

"I wanted to stop some of the carnage on the highways," said Mulieri, who retired last year. He returned Wednesday to see how his program was going.

He acknowledged that gauging its effectiveness is difficult. Still, he believes it delivers a powerful message to young people. "There is going to be a moment of truth in everybody's life ... where you're going to decide to drink and drive or not," he said. "This program is trying to address that moment."

The program began with a brief talk by District Court judges Danielle Mosley and Jeffrey Wachs. Mosley then presided over three cases in the courtroom.

A 19-year-old girl pleaded guilty to stealing $165 worth of merchandise from Macy's. Because it was her first offense, Mosley sentenced her to one year of probation, 40 hours of community service, a $92 fine and court costs.

Then the students watched a 25-year-old plead guilty to driving while impaired by alcohol. He joined a counseling program and received a year of probation.

A 38-year-old pleaded guilty to violating a protective order by showing up at his girlfriend's apartment the day she got the order. Because he already had spent 73 out of a maximum of 90 days in jail, Mosley sentenced him to time served.

Mishonda Baldwin, the assistant state's attorney who prosecuted the cases, took the floor to tell her own story. One day in high school, she chose to take a military aptitude test to get out of class. Because she did well, the Army Reserve recruited her. She thought of her service as just a way to pay for college. Instead, it meant a trip to Saudi Arabia in 1990, shortly before the start of the Persian Gulf War. She escaped from being killed because she was sick the day her unit was attacked.

"The things you're doing right now will impact" your future, Baldwin said.

She turned her talk to the people who were sentenced in the courtroom.

"Don't throw it away on some nonsense," Baldwin said. "Be careful who you associate with."

Laurel Stiff, a nurse at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, gave students a presentation on the horrors she has seen. Many of the crash victims she's treated were driving too fast -- some in excess of 100 mph -- while others were driving while impaired. Her experiences led her and another nurse to form a nonprofit, Positive Alternatives to Dangerous and Destructive Decisions, in 1997 to educate young people about dangerous driving. Stiff showed students a video in which families and friends of victims talked about the accidents that killed their loved ones.

Brooke Klovensky, a freshman at Chesapeake, walked out knowing she needs to avoid not only drinking and driving, but getting into a car with a friend who has been drinking.

"I'm going to think if I get in the car with someone," she said.

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