By Russell L BerryThis is a story about my first Friday as the School Resource Officer at Shawnee Heights High School in September of 2000. After school, I went home to prepare for working the evening football game. As I was returning to the school early that evening, I received a call from dispatch advising that there was a fatality wreck at SE 53rd and Paulen Road.
I was the first officer on the scene and noticed that the victim was a young man that appeared to be a high school student. After checking the license plate on the car, I determined that he was a Shawnee Heights High School student and also determined that his mother was a teacher at the high school. It was determined that he was on his way to the school to perform at the football game as a member of the marching band. The victim was running late to the performance so instead of taking his normal route to school on SE 45th Street, he instead chose SE 53rd Street, which has lighter traffic that would in turn allow him to travel faster.
Upon investigating the accident it was determined that he was traveling between 70 and 75 mph in a 40 mph zone when he lost control of the car and crossed over the other lane of traffic. The student entered the ditch on the opposite side of the road, broke through a fence and went approximately 75 yards into a field where he hit a tree head on. The victim was not wearing a seat belt. After investigating the accident, another officer and the Police Chaplin went to the mother’s home to notify her of the accident and her son’s death.
Not only was this a tragedy for the victim’s family, but the students and staff at the school were greatly affected. This accident was especially difficult because not only did the kids lose a fellow student but a much loved teacher lost her child. After this kind of tragedy the following weeks at the school are met with an eerie silence in the halls. Extra counselors are brought in, students congregate in quiet groups and many tears are shed.
Unfortunately in my 28 years with the Sheriff’s office, 12 of those years as a School Resource Officer, and my two years as Chief of Police for Washburn Rural School District, I have worked too many fatality accidents like this. This accident could have been avoided had the victim not been traveling at such an excessive rate of speed, especially on an unfamiliar road, and distracted by being late and rushing to get where he needed to be. It is unfortunate that too many teenagers believe that they are invincible and do not pay attention to speed limits.
Russell L Berry is the Chief of Police for USD 437 – Auburn Washburn School District in Topeka