CUSTER -- Over 180 freshman students from Hill City, Custer, Hot Springs and Edgemont participated in this year’s Freshman Impact: Caught in the Moment at Crazy Horse Memorial Wednesday, April 19. The program, which includes a mock accident and workshops, teaches freshman students the dangers and consequences of risky behavior such as drugs, alcohol, texting and driving and bullying, as well as how each decision can affect the long-term.

This is the sixth year Custer has hosted Freshman Impact for Southern Black Hills students. The day long prevention program was started in 2006 by Rick McPherson, who was a deputy working in a small community in Pennington County.

“I was fed up with seeing kids in these horrible situations,” he said, adding that he had heard of tailgate parties being busted, as well as rumors of beer cans present at accidents. “I was friends with a federal defense attorney who told me to come up with some type of preventative action to help matters.”

Wall was the first community to host a Freshman Impact event, with 60 students attending. This year, the program will be presented to over 2,800 freshman students in three states: South Dakota (both East and West River), North Dakota and Wyoming, all of which rank in the top 10 nation-wide list for being the worst state for teenage drivers.

“I am excited we will make a difference in each of these states,” McPherson said, adding that Montana may adapt the program in the next year. “I hope this program gives students the knowledge to simply say ‘no’ to high risk. I hope they have the ability to be a role model to other students and help their friends and classmates through the choices they face. It’s all about helping one another.”

This year’s event, which began six months ago, was coordinated by Selena Spring and Joel Behlings.

“Countless hours are spent on coordinating with the schools, event personnel, fundraising, mailings and just working on the overall organization of the program,” Spring said.

Spring has been involved with Freshman Impact since it first came to Custer. In the first few years of the program, Spring helped with the preparation and then became a group leader last year.

“It was fun hanging out with the kids throughout the day and watching them interact with one another and participate in each of the learning stations,” she said.

The day started with learning stations where small groups of students rotated through the seven stations. Inside were stations on suicide prevention, long-term consequences, social media and texting, as well as a drug presentation.

Outside, the freshman groups participated in “Battle of the Belts,” where students raced to put their seat belts on, competing against other teams’ times; and the field sobriety test, a driving course students completed while wearing “drunk goggles” which simulate a .17 blood alcohol content. Students were also introduced to the tools firefighters and EMT personnel use when responding to vehicle accidents, such as the “jaws of life.”

“Every year, we change some of the topics to touch on current teen issues, but the overall message will always be the same,” Spring said. “If it makes one student stop and think about the decisions they make and if it saves even one life, then all the time we spend on this program makes it even more valuable.”

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After lunch, provided by Crazy Horse Memorial, students heard from a speaker about the consequences his family suffered after his brother — who wasn’t wearing a seat belt — was killed in an accident. Following the message, students watched a skit performed by Hill City students, setting up the mock crash accident.

The mock crash — involving two cars, injuring six and killing one — showed students the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Over the course of an hour, students were able to see first responders arrive on the scene and begin helping victims, just as they would if it was a real accident. Agencies involved vary from medical, fire and law enforcement personnel from all of the areas in the Southern Black Hills, as well as representatives from the National Parks Service, U.S. Forest Service, Game Fish and Parks, Custer State Park, South Dakota State University, Ellsworth Air Force Base, MADD and South Dakota National Guard.

“Each agency usually sends one or two people, which creates a team and working atmosphere in the community,” McPherson said. “It goes back to the proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ That’s where we’re coming from. Every resource has just a little bit of something to add to the program to help students make proper choices.”

One of the agencies responding to this year’s mock crash was Lifeflight, which hasn’t been able to participate in the previous five years due to weather. While the day started with cloudy skies and rain, the clouds broke around noon, allowing Lifeflight to fly in.

“We were so excited to have them come,” Spring said. “Joel and I kept telling everyone it was our number one priority.”

After the crash victims were rescued, a mock funeral was held, with services provided by Chamberlain-McColleys, as well as a mock trial with Custer County state’s attorney Tracy Kelley serving as prosecuting lawyer, Custer attorney Chris Beesley as defense lawyer and Seventh Circuit Judge Heidi Linngren presiding over the trial.

To find out more about Freshman Impact: Caught in the Moment, visit freshmanimpact.com.

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