MORE

Permanent Recess

Bryan Anderson thinks often about his decision to get into the back seat of a car for a lunchtime fast-food run.
Jackie Mercandetti

Teenagers are notoriously bad drivers. One out of every three teen drivers will be involved in a collision in the first year after obtaining driver's licenses, and many will die, according to national traffic safety statistics. So many, in fact, that auto accidents are the number-one killer of teenagers in America.

And yet, each day around noon, teenagers stream out of high schools, jump into cars, and head for fast-food joints in a dangerous race to return before the lunchtime bell.

In 2001, more than 150,000 collisions involving teen drivers occurred in the United States during lunchtime hours, the National Traffic Safety Administration tells New Times. Of those, nearly 21,000 teens were injured. And 139 were killed.

What adds to the risks of lunchtime escapes, studies show, is the tendency for teens to pile into cars in large numbers. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, teen drivers are so easily distracted that when a single additional passenger is present, the risk of a fatal accident doubles. Add three passengers, and the risk of a lethal crash is five times higher than if the teen were driving alone.

In the Valley, the death toll has included at least six students over the past seven years.

In 1996, a lunchtime accident left a Highland High School senior dead. A Chaparral High sophomore riding as a passenger was killed in 1998. In the past two years, separate lunchtime collisions took the lives of two students from Mountain View High School.

In their wakes, those deaths have left behind a predictable pattern of school policies enacted to address them: Districts and schools affected by lunchtime fatalities have tended to adopt strict closed-campus rules, and others have not.

But even in those schools that have reacted to deaths by enacting tough rules preventing students from leaving, the "closed" campus is often a misnomer. Teens who want to leave badly enough can, and do.

Some school administrators interviewed for this story say that they're well aware of that fact, and they also acknowledge that schools should be doing a better job keeping kids from making unauthorized campus escapes.

But recent court cases suggest that schools have little to motivate themselves to do a better job. Because of Arizona state law, schools that let down on their duty to keep kids from escaping face no penalty when they do. Shielded from legal liability, Arizona high schools have little incentive to improve their lunchtime offerings or beef up lax security measures that teens consider a joke.

With the keys to a new silver Ford Mustang in their possession, the four high school boys weren't about to settle for cafeteria food.

The four were freshmen and sophomores, and weren't supposed to leave the Horizon High School campus in Scottsdale. But they did anyway, waving goodbye to a security guard whose job it was to stop them.

After a dash to a gas station and a friend's house, they headed to a string of fast-food restaurants that line the roads near the school. The boys were in a hurry. By the time they got to Thunderbird Road, the Mustang was a gray blur.

Scott Reigelsperger, the 16-year-old driver, made a sharp left turn onto Thunderbird Road. The car whipped around so fast that one of the boys sitting in the back seat, 15-year-old Bryan Anderson, hit his head on the side window.

Still the car speeded up. Within two blocks, the Mustang had accelerated to about 65 mph.

"Hey, man, slow down," Bryan remembers saying as he struggled to put on his seatbelt. He looked up and saw a van turning left in front of them.

Bryan was still holding the seat belt in his hand when the Mustang made a heart-stopping skid and crashed into the van. The impact threw Bryan forward, slamming his shoulder into the driver's seat and smashing his head against the dome light on the roof of the car.

Slumped over, with blood dripping down the side of his head, Bryan tried to push himself back against the seat. His entire body shuddered and then grew numb.

"At first, I thought I had broken my shoulder," Bryan says. "But I kind of came to and I was like, Wait a minute, I can't feel my body. Something's wrong here.'"

Still conscious, Bryan remained slumped across the back seat of the car. He could hear his friends yelling for him to get out, that the car was going to explode, but Bryan lay there, helpless, the panic growing. He couldn't feel anything. He couldn't move.

Bryan's accident more than seven years ago left him a quadriplegic. He was never supposed to leave campus, but a lax security force allowed it to happen. His parents blamed the school for the accident and sued the Paradise Valley Unified School District, but the suit was thrown out.

 

The courts ruled that it was not the school's responsibility to keep Bryan from leaving campus. Horizon and the district were not held liable for the accident because, according to the ruling, "the school did not cause the injury to the plaintiff."

That decision has been reinforced by other court rulings, which have concluded it is not the duty of schools to protect drivers from teens who leave campus during lunch. Furthermore, the courts have said, schools that fail to have or enforce closed-campus policies do not violate their duty to protect students.

The result, say legal experts: It's now nearly impossible to sue school districts successfully over lunchtime accidents.

"It's a very tough argument to make," says Betsy Grey, a law professor at Arizona State University. "By negligently enforcing the policy, it doesn't mean the school's negligence caused the car accident. The purpose of the policy has nothing to do with the vehicular accident. It was the student who should not have been driving; it was not the school."

Bryan's mother, Julie Anderson, says it was very difficult to accept that the school was not held accountable for what happened to her son. "When you send your kids to school, you feel that the school has some responsibility in making sure that they're safe," she says. "You have no control over how the kids drive outside of school, but when they're at school, they are expected to be kept on campus. If you have a security guard who, just because he knows them, turns his head and says, Just make sure you're back on time,' that's a little hard to accept."

She says the school told her that it was up to her and other parents to discipline their children who left campus against their wishes.

She tried that, she says, but it didn't work. She told her son on the first day of school, after a family friend caught him eating lunch at the mall, that he was not allowed to leave campus. If he did, he would not be allowed to play sports.

After that, she never heard of another problem.

"I never got a call from the school saying Bryan has been caught leaving campus," she says. "If I knew he was doing it, there would have been consequences. Instead, he's a lead athlete and they're making excuses for him. They're allowing this to happen. Where are their consequences?"

The school year was just getting under way this past August when Omar Cano, 17, left North Canyon High School with two of his friends to eat lunch at the Burger King at Cave Creek Road and Union Hills Drive.

At the restaurant, the boys ran into a group of girls they recognized from school. Cano, who had already received a speeding ticket earlier that morning, asked one of the students if she wanted to race her new 2001 Hyundai Tiburon. The driver, Cortney Schwartz, said no and left the restaurant with three of her friends.

Schwartz pulled out of Burger King onto Union Hills heading west. Cano was not far behind, speeding and revving his engine. He suddenly veered into the two-way center turn lane, losing control of the 1995 two-door Honda and swerving into eastbound traffic. Cano's Honda collided with a Nissan pickup truck, killing 17-year-old Victor Reyes, the front-seat passenger in Cano's car, and critically injuring Cano. He died a few weeks later.

North Canyon allows seniors to leave school during lunch if their parents have given them written permission. Just a day or two before the accident, Cano's dad had signed the form.

Most of North Canyon's seniors about 300 out of 500 complete their classes before lunchtime, according to John Kriekard, assistant superintendent of the Paradise Valley School District, of which North Canyon is a part. Of the remaining 200 seniors, about half have their parents' permission to leave campus during lunch. That means about 100 students leave school and return for afternoon classes nearly every day.

Since the accident, some parents have pressed the school to change the lunchtime policy and restrict all students to campus.

But other parents about half, one survey showed want the policy to stay the same so their sons and daughters can leave campus.

One of them, ironically, is the father of Omar Cano.

"The same type of thing could happen at lunch, after school or on the weekend," says Rogelio Ronquillo, father to the dead drag racer. "It's just the way these kids drive. I don't see a point for schools to close the campus during lunch."

 

Enough parents felt the same way to keep the school from changing its already lax policy after a debate on November 18.

Kriekard said he supports the school's decision since this "is the only case really where they had an incident. It's a decision that families make whether or not to sign the waiver. It was a privilege that seniors earned. Should the school really take that away from them?"

However, he admitted that schools "need to do a better job of making sure that only those kids with permission are the ones leaving, because other students are getting off. Kids get out and feel that they are invincible and that they know what they are doing. Some of it is supervision, some of it is education [on safer driving]."

Other schools have felt forced to take stronger measures after a lunchtime fatality.

The Gilbert School District implemented a closed-campus policy for all of its high schools after the senior from Highland was killed. The Mesa School Board closed Mountain View High School's campus two years ago after the fatal accidents there.

Chaparral High School, which experienced a lunchtime fatality in 1998, used to follow the same policy of all Scottsdale high schools, allowing juniors and seniors to leave, but keeping underclassmen on campus. But monitoring who could leave and who could not was next to impossible, says Kriekard, who was principal of Chaparral at the time. "Since so many people were leaving, we probably didn't do as good of a job as we should have checking who left. Some sophomores would get off and sometimes we caught them. It was just part of the game."

That's exactly what happened in 1998 when a sophomore left campus unnoticed during lunch and was killed when the car he was riding in was struck by another Chaparral driver. The subsequent uproar led Chaparral to conduct a telephone survey of parents.

"It was clear that what the parents wanted was to have the campus closed but allow seniors with parental permission to leave," Kriekard says. "So that's what we were going to do for the following year."

Before the policy took effect, however, the Scottsdale School Board stepped in, closing all five of its high school campuses completely. Not even seniors including those whose parents had given permission were allowed to leave campus during the school day.

Kriekard, along with students and many parents, was upset by the board's decision. He felt that students were cheated out of something that had already been agreed upon.

"I had worked with the juniors and sophomores, since they were the two groups that were most affected by the change," Kriekard says. "We developed more zero-hour classes. I worked with students on a better lunch [to encourage them to stay and eat on campus]. We worked out a lot of things and convinced people this was the way that we were going to go."

School board members, however, said safety came first. The closed-campus policy one of the strictest in the Valley remains in effect.

Mary Lou Muccino, Chaparral's current principal, says the new, tougher policy is working. "It definitely has made an impact, and to the best of our ability we enforce the closed-campus policy," she tells New Times. "We have more kids here for lunch. We expanded our cafeteria options, things for kids to have for lunch. We expanded our snack bar so we have a larger eating area to service everyone. We also lengthened our lunch period so we can service all of the kids."

Most important, Muccino says the school has truly beefed up security where it's needed most. All students have an ID card, she says, with a sticker showing which period they are done with school and are allowed to leave. "We have security guards posted in front of our parking lots, the lots are now gated and we now have control over who comes in and out of them."

If the first students affected by the change tended to complain, Muccino says, those complaints have gradually ended. "Every year since the accident, the number of kids who have even tried to leave has considerably decreased. These kids have never had the opportunity leave. They've never known what it was like."

Last week, another high school, Apollo in Glendale, debated whether to adopt a similarly tough closed-campus policy.

One of four schools in the Glendale Union High School District with an open campus (five others are closed), Apollo's principal and faculty are leaning heavily toward keeping students from leaving at lunch.

"There's an overwhelming support for safety issues and closer supervision of students because when they leave our campus, quite honestly, we don't know what happens to them during that half an hour," principal Deborah Greenfield told a group of about a dozen parents at a meeting February 11. She cited the short lunch period that students use to race to fast-food restaurants and return. "One of our parents called it the synthetic rush hour' that we have created to allow our kids to get off and get back. We've actually created an unsafe situation in this sense."

 

Greenfield's concerns seemed to resonate with the parents in attendance. But one father, Cliff Myers, an occupational safety engineer, said he objected to a closed campus. "There are a lot of reasons why I'm against it. You've got 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds on this campus. I think it's unfair to expect them to stay on campus if they're adults and they want to go home."

Myers said that if a student is old enough to fight in Iraq, he or she should be able to go to Jack in the Box.

In the time it took for one car to crash into another, Bryan Anderson went from star athlete to quadriplegic.

In middle school, he was the number-one runner in Arizona, competing in the 100-meter, 200-meter and 4-by-100 relay. Bryan dreamed of pursuing a career in college football and then going to the pros.

"I was just a very active person," Bryan says. "I never liked to sit in one spot, ever. I was always moving."

His hopes of playing football were shattered the instant his spinal cord was crushed. Within a week of the accident, Bryan's once-athletic form went from 160 pounds to 111 pounds. He couldn't brush his teeth, put on his clothes or get into his wheelchair by himself.

For 10 months, Bryan stayed in the hospital, enduring multiple surgeries and exhaustive rehabilitation. Finally, in October of 1996, he was ready to come home.

Even though hospital officials tried to prepare his family for what was about to happen, they had no idea how much their lives were about to change.

"When he came home, that's when all three of us realized how our lives had changed because no longer could he be alone," says his mother, Julie Anderson. "We all had our jobs to do to help him along. It was just so much more responsibility for each one of us. It was a lot of stress on the family and Bryan because he felt like, I'm this big burden to everybody.'"

Julie found herself taking care of Bryan 24 hours a day. He couldn't even scratch his nose or brush his teeth. "It was like taking care of an infant all over again, as well as trying to take care of the emotional end of it."

Bryan has had seven years to adjust to life as a quadriplegic.

"It's not easy, but it is possible to get through it," he says. "I'm still doing physical therapy, trying to get better. I just keep working and keep an open mind."

Bryan, like most other 22-year-olds, parties at the bars with his friends and enjoys watching movies. When he was 16, he got his first tattoo against his parents' wishes.

Not a day goes by that Bryan doesn't ask himself, "What if?"

"Those thoughts go by me at least two or three times a day. What if I didn't leave? What if I were driving? I even fought over the front seat with one of the guys in the car. We were yelling at each other at the gas station 'cause I called shotgun, but he was being a little baby, so I was just like, All right, you can have it,' and I sat in the back," he says.

He still struggles with depression. He still has trouble learning to accept his limitations.

"He used to party to where he couldn't see straight," Julie says. "Even now, he goes through peaks and valleys of depression. Now there's fewer and far between, but he still does. He still fights that I can't do this kind of stuff.' It's been very hard. It's the biggest test; it really is.

"I would never wish what we went through on anybody, even my worst enemy," she says. "It is a parent's worst nightmare. It's almost and maybe I have nothing to base this on but it's almost worse than losing your son because you know that once you've lost him, he's out of pain and now it's your responsibility to deal with it however you wish. But to see him struggle every day, that's heart-wrenching."

It's 11:12 a.m. the day before Thanksgiving, and the bell has just rung at Horizon High School, signaling the start of fifth-hour lunch. This is the time when many of the seniors leave school for the day, while others try to sneak off campus to grab lunch before facing afternoon classes.

 

Most students stream out of classrooms and head directly for the cafeteria, while others, supposedly only seniors, head for the parking lots. They argue about where to eat lunch and talk about plans for Thanksgiving.

Security guards sit in their golf carts near the exits, scanning the crowd for unfamiliar faces and waving goodbye to the students they know. If a guard is unsure whether a student has permission to leave, he or she is supposed to ask for the student's ID card and check for a name against the list of students who can leave.

Today, the guard tells most students, "Have a nice holiday." She asks only a handful of students, "Are you a senior? Do you always go through my lot?" The students answer "yes" to both questions, and keep walking toward their cars.

Some students will go to great lengths to get off campus without getting caught. Those who spoke to New Times say they have friends stationed with getaway cars near the school exits, or they jam rocks in doors that lock from the outside so that they can sneak back in.

One sophomore at Horizon admits to creating a fake pass in order to get by guards standing at the parking lots. Because the student uses the pass on a regular basis, the guards don't even bother to look at it anymore.

Since Bryan's accident in 1996, Horizon is stricter about its lunchtime policies and the punishments meted out for leaving without permission. Seniors are still the only students allowed to leave during lunch, but now, like North Canyon, they must have a signed waiver from their parents.

If students are caught leaving without permission, they are supposed to be written up. They then serve four after-school "Campus Beautification" detentions picking up trash. After their first offense, they are suspended from school for a day.

In addition, Horizon has brought fast food to campus as an incentive for kids to stay on campus. Restaurants such as Sonic, Arby's and Baja Fresh now have tables set up outside the cafeteria.

How effective are the changes?

"I know a lot of people who sneak off who aren't seniors," says one Horizon senior who didn't want to be named. "The security guards like them, so they let them leave. Sometimes kids even buy the guards food in exchange to get off. Other kids sneak off when the guards aren't around. There are some kids who get caught sneaking off or coming back on and get in trouble. But there are definitely a lot who get off."

Scott Reilly, a 16-year-old sophomore at Horizon, says students escape campus for different reasons. "Some leave because they want food, others leave because they want to smoke. A lot of kids leave because you just can't sit at school and eat for an hour."

Reilly does agree that the punishments persuade some students to stay on campus. "If you get caught, it's not a joke, because you have to do a lot of crap. Campus beautification is not easy. It sucks staying after school picking up trash."

But kids will find an escape route if they really want to leave campus, he adds.

Clark Thomas, assistant principal of Horizon, says the school has "tightened up security" because of the North Canyon accident. Between the first day of school and November 20, 85 students were given referrals for trying to leave during lunch, he says.

But if 85 students were caught, how many actually made it past security?

Jim Root, head of Horizon's security, guesses that only an average of one student a day gets past security. That's hard to believe, though, when Root explains the obstacles security guards face: "Bottom line is this: If you've got 150 kids coming at you, how many can you tell I want to see your ID card'? They'll just walk right by you and blow you off. You just can't physically stop them all."

Root says a lot of students get caught going off campus across the football field. "By the time we see them and get to them, they're already to the wash and gone. So we just wait for them the next day. You catch some today, some tomorrow, some next week."

Chelsea Federio, a 17-year-old senior at Horizon, leaves school every day at the beginning of fifth hour to eat lunch and then returns for her sixth-hour class. "The first week of school, the security guards were pretty strict with checking IDs and checking to see if my name was on a list," she says. "Now they know me, so I just walk right by."

 

Others also noted that after an initial period of vigilance, school officials tended to let down their guard, allowing students without permission to get through.

According to Root, two changes would help ensure that students don't sneak off campus: a fence and more security guards. But neither is likely to happen.

Thomas says Horizon is considering putting up a fence around the perimeter of the school, but it may be too expensive. He estimates the cost could be as high as $48,000.

Lack of money also makes it impossible to hire more security. Horizon has one part-time and six full-time security guards, which Root says isn't enough. "The whole purpose of this is like a game -- you hide and seek, you're here one day, you're over there the next day. You try to be where they don't expect you to be. There are just too many holes for them to get out."

Root was working the day that Bryan Anderson left through one of those holes. Although he said it was a horrible thing that happened, he does not think the security guards were to blame.

"Bryan should have never left campus," Root says. "Whether there was a security guard standing there or not, he probably would've gone off anyway or found another way. Yes, I'm very devastated and sorry for what he did, but it was bad judgment and stupidity."

The fact remains: Seven years later, Horizon has not found a way to keep kids from leaving campus exactly as Bryan did.

As a parent, Julie Anderson thinks the solution is tighter security and guards who actually enforce the closed-campus policy. "In Bryan's situation, he was told, Yeah, you can go, but hurry back so that nobody gets in trouble.' Well, the kids were driving a 5.0 Mustang. What kind of a car is better for hurrying back in? Schools should be made to enforce the closed-campus policy for the safety of the kids and other people on the road. Kids are always in a rush and it's mass confusion. I think that the schools need to do whatever they can to protect our kids."

Although Bryan would like to see schools close their campuses to help prevent more accidents like his, he isn't sure if a foolproof policy exists that would prevent students from leaving. "Schools can lock the campus and try to keep kids there, but they're going to find some way to get out. So many kids still manage to get off, especially at schools like Horizon. They always will."

Bryan knows that most students don't realize the danger they put themselves in when they leave. "You don't expect something like this," he says. "You don't really think, I'm going to die just leaving campus' or I'm going to get paralyzed in a car accident.'"

He wishes they would listen to him: "Don't think you're invincible," he would tell them. "Don't think that this can't or won't happen to you. Your life can change within a split second."


Sponsor Content