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Hernando County Sheriff's program aims to send students a message: Buckle up


Sequoia Sellers was at school last Thursday — but wasn't.

The 15-year-old Hernando High School freshman was one of 10 students asked to spend the day in silence, not allowed to speak to any of her friends.

The students wore black T-shirts that read: "I chose not to wear my seat belt. Would you miss me if I was gone?"

They were instructed to pretend they were not there so their friends would get an idea of what it would be like if a classmate were killed in a car accident.

Sequoia always wears her seat belt and was willing to participate to get others into the habit.

"I'm just excited and hope that everyone understands why we're doing this and that it's not something to joke about," she said.

Her mother, who works in Hernando High's front office, is a self-proclaimed seat belt fanatic.

"If you're not wearing your seat belt, she will not go, not take it out of park," Sequoia said about her mother.

Senior Jacob Faulkingham, 18, was another participant.

"I think it's a good cause," he said, "because it'll show other students what it would be like if we weren't here."

This was part of a campaign and contest called "Battle of the Belts," which took place in the county's high schools last week.

The campaign was sponsored by the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, and several deputies were at the schools each day. They included James Dean, a 6-foot-10, blue-eyed deputy dressed as the grim reaper in a hooded black robe and wearing black gloves with plastic bones attached to them. His face was painted a deathly white. He carried a sickle.

The groups traveled throughout their schools, collecting the students who had agreed to be "deceased" for a day. Classes were greeted by Hernando High school resource officer Deputy Bill Pope.

"We're trying to get the message out today that it's very important to wear seat belts," Pope told the Hernando High students. "Death is final."

Sheriff Al Nienhuis was with them.

"Young people, you can bombard them with all the pictures in the world. But if you don't teach reach them on an emotional level, you're not going to get them," he said. "We're trying to give them a little taste of what would happen if they lost one of their friends, and we pray that they think about it every time they get in their cars."

The campaign began the week before when plainclothes deputies parked in unmarked cars at the entrances to the schools to count cars that had drivers or passengers not wearing seat belts. At Hernando High, 36 percent of about 400 cars contained unbelted riders.

The campaign is supposed to help combat that statistic by sending contracts home with students to sign, promising to wear seat belts and make other good life choices. The number of completed contracts and the percentage of seat belt use among students, to be gauged at a later date, will determine which school wins a $1,000 award.

To further reach students, Florida Highway Patrol Troop C Sgt. Steve Gaskins was on hand with a rollover simulator. As students gathered throughout the day, Gaskins told them: "A motor vehicle crash is a very violent way to become injured or killed. It hurts."

When he turned on the machine — a partial car with four dummies inside — it turned around and around, sending an adult and a baby flying out the windows. The dummies that remained in the car were buckled in.

"It just shocked me," said freshman Tyler Yungmann, 14. "The legs were out of the window, and they were getting slammed around, and the baby just flew out of the car and probably got killed."

This is the first year for the campaign, but the Sheriff's Office hopes to make it an annual event. It was coordinated by Deputy Keith Brown, who is with the sheriff's traffic unit.

Hernando County Sheriff's program aims to send students a message: Buckle up 02/01/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 7:31pm]
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