CENTREVILLE, Md. – The eight teenagers, sporting the baggy look and attitudes that dared the adults in the room to tell them something new, talked about their homework assignment.
They had to write a personal care plan in case they ever were paralyzed in an alcohol- or drug-related accident. They had to write their own obituaries and make funeral plans.
There were tough questions. Who would bathe them if they were incapacitated? Who would be their pallbearers?
Many couldn’t come up with six people to carry their caskets, let alone take care of them 24/7.
“It really makes you think about what can happen,” said one 17-year-old.
And that’s what State Trooper Terry Ober and Queen Anne’s County Sheriff’s Cpl. James M. Gossage want. Ober and Gossage coordinate the Reality Program, a substance abuse course that forces juveniles to confront the consequences of using drugs and alcohol.
Reality, designed for people ages 14 to 21, was founded in 1991 by a Tennessee minister. Queen Anne’s County started Maryland’s pilot program in August 1996. Now, Kent County has a program and plans for one are underway in Worcester County. Eventually, Ober and Gossage hope Reality will be used throughout the state.
Kent County District Judge Floyd Parks uses Reality as an alternative sentence and a condition of probation. “Anytime you can interdict early and change somebody it’s got to be a benefit,” he said.
Thus far, 40 people have attended the program in Maryland. Of them, Ober said two have re-offended. One was a drunk passenger in an alcohol-related accident and the other was charged with possession of marijuana on the way to an assignment. A third failed by not doing homework assignments, and had to start the program over.
In addition to the obituary and funeral plans, homework has included writing letters to their parents, their honeys and their best friends.
“I hope we never have to use that, but those are going to be filed away,” Ober told the teens, gathered in a room at the Centreville State Police Barracks. “Unfortunately, if something happens I’ll be the one to deliver the news and we’ll put that in use. Please don’t put me in that situation.”
The teenagers included high school athletes and future college students. One wanted to be a radiologist, another an intelligence officer. Being paralyzed or dead wasn’t on their minds.
They admitted that their alcohol and drug use had eroded their parents’ trust, and the assignments made them realize that their moms and dads were important.
Ober and Gossage told them that no matter how much teenagers fight with their parents, their parents don’t want anything to happen to them. The officers reiterated that the community also loved them. The officers didn’t criticize the youngsters for getting in trouble, but hoped they would change.
“I personally feel that life is one mistake after the other,” Ober repeatedly told them. “But, you’re not supposed to make the same mistakes.”
The teens also learned that it cost U.S. taxpayers $110 million to clean up alcohol-related accidents and treat the injured in 1995. And that in the same year, 5 million teenagers were treated for alcohol use. They learned how alcohol and drugs affect their bodies. Guest speakers included a public defender and a paramedic.
There is a $95 fee for the program, and its three-hour sessions are held every Friday for a month. Participants are sent by judges, the Department of Social Services or concerned parents.
In the end, the students at a recent session said the program was informative and interesting. One 18-year-old voiced what a few of the older teens were thinking.
“I’m not going to say I’m not going to drink again until I’m 21,” he said, hesitating as Ober pulled out his handcuffs. “I’m sure a lot of other people feel the same.”
Others, who had been caught at a “senior hook day” party where alcohol was present, echoed his sentiments. Ober fingered his cuffs slowly, staring at the young man.
“As much as we want to be your friend and help you, we’re also the ones who are going to lock you up,” Ober warned.
The teens were a mix of veterans recounting stories of failed sobriety tests and rookies caught for the first time.
Tye Rade and Josh Guyton, both 14, said they wouldn’t drink again until they were 21. Josh, not realizing he’d worn a “This Bud’s For You” t-shirt until it was pointed out to him, said Reality wasn’t his first program and wouldn’t be his last. He and a 17-year-old were in a six-month drug rehabilitation program and Alcoholics Anonymous.
Nevertheless, Josh was excited about staying alcohol free and had a message for his friends:
“I got my help fools.” -30-