Safe Rides grant life-saving options

By Sidrah Baloch
Published: March 2009

In response to local concern about unsafe driving habits among teenagers, the Federal Safe Schools/Healthy Students Program has created a Safe Rides Task Force to discuss activating a program that would provide students from either high school a free taxi ride home if they were to find themselves in an unsafe situation.

A grant from the SS/HS has provided the Newton Public Schools with $6 million to be used over the next four years in projects promoting safety in the school environment and among students of all grade levels.

The idea for a Newton Safe Rides program was first introduced by 2008 graduate Sara Shapiro. “I decided that something had to be done to make sure everyone was safe. I was inspired to create the Safe Rides program my junior year when I saw how many of my friends and peers were drunk driving or driving home with people who had been drinking or doing drugs, she said.

Shapiro wants Newton high school students to have the option of getting a free taxi ride home as a safe alternative to being trapped in a dangerous situation.

As a result of her efforts, the SS/HS grant ultimately calls for the organization of a Safe Rides Task Force as well as a Pilot program to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of the system.
The Pilot weekend is scheduled for June 5 through 9 between 10:30 pm and 3:00 am each night, encompassing both Newton North’s and South’s prom. Prior to that weekend, parents will be asked to sign an active consent form allowing their child access to the program and providing an address to be given to the taxi company. Participating students will be allowed one free ride over the course of the four-day Pilot program.

The Safe Rides Task Force hopes to use the results of the Pilot weekend to determine if there is a need for such a system in the Newton community.

Many parents, however, already feel that some sort of system is necessary to begin lowering the number of alcohol-related accidents involving high school students.

“I really do think [the Safe Rides program] is necessary in Newton, parent Jeannie Smith said. “There has been an increase in alcohol-related accidents, and Newton is such a huge community.

Principal Brian Salzer believes that it is the responsibility of the school and the community to work together to reduce teenage drunk driving. “We certainly had some unfortunate incidents this year¦and so I think we need to take some steps, he said. “This is not a bad step, but it’s not the solution.

Ideally, the “solution to teenage drunk driving would be to eliminate illegal substance abuse altogether. The leaders of the program, as well as parents and students, however, seem to agree that this expectation is unrealistic, and that as long as underage drinking remains prevalent, a child’s safety should be the number one concern.

“In a perfect world, we could say we have zero tolerance policy for drinking, and no one would drink, Shapiro said. “But the statistics and headlines are telling a different story, and in the interim, safety should be the highest priority.

According to Deena David, a South parent and member of the Safe Rides Task Force, the Safe Rides program in itself doesn’t condone drinking. “The program is really designed simply to find a safe way to transport the kids who do drink safely to their homes at the end of the night, David said.

Still, David and the Safe Ride Task Force’s acting chair Nancy Holczer have expressed the concern that some parents and students will think that the program excuses illegal underage drinking. David and Holczer addressed this issue when they met with the South Senate in February, but most of the Senators agreed that safety was the priority.

Junior Taichi Fukumura believes that the Safe Rides program will give students the impression that drinking is not a problem. “[The Safe Rides program] encourages and gives people the idea that it’s okay to drink¦It says, ‘Ëœdon’t worry, you will always have a ride home,’ he said.
Fukumura also noted that the program is at risk for abuse. “People shouldn’t get drunk in the first place, and if they are, they probably aren’t responsible enough to bother calling the taxi anyways, he said. “It’s open to abuse¦people can simply use it as a free transportation method for selfish reasons, not safety.

The Pilot weekend in June will partially serve to assess whether or not students will misuse the system.

Students can only vouch for a free ride if they are in a legitimately unsafe situation. This does not necessarily imply that the students themselves are drunk; it could mean that they feel uncomfortable riding with an intoxicated friend, or even that they need to find a way to escape an aggressive boyfriend or girlfriend. The only requisite is that the student is seriously concerned about his or her safety and has no other safe means of getting home. “High school students, parents, staff and the Newton police are all concerned about students who feel they have no choice but to get a ride from someone they do not feel safe with. Holczer said.

David said that the Task Force will hold educational sessions and community meetings to raise awareness about the goals of the program and also to ensure that students understand what constitutes misuse of the service. David also hopes that discussion about the program will stimulate dialog between parents and children.

“I’m hoping that the Safer Schools grant will¦give students and parents more ways to think about how to speak to one another [about drinking], she said.

If the Pilot weekend proves successful, then the Task Force will move ahead with finalizing the Safe Rides program and producing a long-term system. Until then, the Task Force is still addressing some of the logistics of the service, inviting input from students, parents, and members of the community.

Some technicalities still up for discussion include which days the program would operate, how many taxi cabs would be in use, and whether students should have a maximum number of free rides available.

The Task Force has also debated about whether students who get a Safe Ride should only be dropped off at their own house, or whether there should be a list of other parent-approved houses where they can go.

The Task Force has also made decisions about how to ensure that whichever taxi company they ultimately choose is appropriate for the Safe Rides program. All of the drivers involved in the program will be CORI checked and CPR certified.

Members of the Task Force will also discuss the idea of having a female taxi driver available for female students traveling alone.

This should ease some parents’ doubts about the program. One parent said that although her own child would probably feel uncomfortable riding alone in a taxi with a stranger, the service is “absolutely a good option.

The Task Force decided after some deliberation that parents will not be notified if their child uses the Safe Rides service. Parents who choose to sign the consent form will also be signing an anonymity clause, essentially allowing their child to use the service without parental notification. Theoretically, this will make the Safe Rides option more appealing to students who would not use the service if they felt they would get in trouble for doing so. The police will also not be notified.

“It has to be confidential in order to work because kids don’t want to be judged, parent Mindy Scharlin said.

Junior Josh Penzias said that he would want to participate in the Safe Rides program to avoid potential accidents, but that he would prefer if his parents were not notified.

“It would feel like an invasion of privacy, he said.

Penzias, along with many other students, however, said that his parents would want him to have the option of getting home safely if he were in a dangerous situation.

“My parents would support anything that would prevent me from getting hurt or would get me out of a dangerous situation, sophomore senator Jackie Horowitz said.

“My parents expect me and my friends to ‘Ëœexperiment’ and I know that they would prefer if there was a responsible way to be irresponsible, an anonymous senior said. “It’s an all around helpful program. It’s helpful in easing pressure in stressful situations for students and their parents.

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