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Missouri Safe and Sober Aimed at Helping Kids Make Good Decisions about Drugs and Alcohol

Springfield attorney, Kurt Larson, was the father of two teenagers when he decided to create a program to try to prevent high school students from drinking and driving.

"We had a real live sense for the pressures they're under to experiment with alcohol and drugs and, you know, just the pressure of coping with high school and figuring out who you are," said Larson.

And, as a trial lawyer representing victims of traffic accidents, he knew well the implications of drinking and driving.

Missouri Safe and Sober is entering its 13th year and is now offered to both high schools and middle schools across Missouri.  It not only offers information to help kids decide not to drink and drive, it now also includes an anti-drug message.

"You know, you think about in the movies, you hear Mexican cartels and you think that's just not Springfield community, and the truth is, it's here, they're delivering and our kids need to be aware that that is the next logical step if you begin experimenting with certain things," Larson said.

Recently, a Safe and Sober program was held for seniors at Hillcrest High School.  Larson told them about a teen who had just graduated from Hillcrest High School and was planning to be a doctor.  He had never violated the law before when he made the decision to drink and drive, crossed the center line on a Springfield street and killed a Nixa High School graduate. 

"You know, had done everything right like most if not all of you," he told the teens," but made a terrible error in judgment, got behind the wheel impaired, crossed the center line of Ingram Mill Rd. right in front of Glendale High School, slammed head on into Tammy Gardner's car and killed her."

According to Larson, it was one of the most horrific crashes he’d ever been a part of.  He represented the passenger in the car, Gardner’s fiancé, who tried unsuccessfully to pull her out when the car caught fire.

After hearing from Safe and Sober staff or Kurt Larson, kids watch a video featuring a young person who’s been impacted by drunk driving.  This video featured a young Missouri woman who continued drinking despite her father’s pleas to stop.  A crash that changed her life forever happened after she’d been drinking at work.  She shattered several vertebrae and broke four others.  She’s now in a wheelchair and isn’t expected to ever walk again.

When the program is over, kids are invited to pick up a pledge card and sign it, committing to an alcohol and drug-free lifestyle.

"It is not somebody making them do it but rather them being given education, information from us that helps them come around to seeing that that is the best choice for them," said Larson.

The seniors at the recent presentation at Hillcrest are leading by example by working with the underclassmen at their school and with middle school students in peer-led ways to convince them to say no to drugs and alcohol.

According to Larson, while many kids say their parents are the biggest influence in whether or not they try drugs and alcohol, they also listen to their peers.  He said it’s important to reach them early since the average age of experimentation in Missouri is 13.

Kirk Slater, assistant principal at Hillcrest, has been involved with Safe & Sober at his school the entire nine years he’s been there, and he’s a firm believer that it can make a difference.  He sees a lot of young people entering high school with what he calls unmet needs or voids in their lives.

"They're desperately seeking to fill those voids with anything they can get ahold of, and part of that is drugs and alcohol, so I think it's a noble endeavor when we're challenging kids to think that, you know, to fill this void that you might have, alcohol and drugs is not what you need to be turning to," said Slater.

Safe & Sober will soon add a component on coping.  The program’s director, Mackenzie Hernandez, says they’ve heard from students and teachers that one of the things young people struggle with is finding ways to deal with stress. 

"So, we're trying to look at, on the preventative side, how do we teach teens healthy ways of dealing with stress, so whether that be pursuing other beneficial activities like exercise or, you know, talking with a friend or writing on things like that," said Hernandez.

The coping component is in the planning stages, according to Hernandez, but they’re working with a local counselor to gain referrals to experts who can help them develop it.

While Slater said the percentage of those who sign pledge cards can vary from 35 percent to more than 70 percent, that doesn’t worry him.

"I'm a firm believer that if it impacts one child it's all worth it because you and I both know the impact that one person has on other people.  So, whether we have one child sign a commitment card and return it or if it's over 70 percent of the kids, I feel like we've been successful," Slater said.

According to Larson, the Safe and Sober program gives kids—even those already experimenting with alcohol and drugs—something to think about when it comes to making a decision about whether or not to drive impaired.