Texas family's tragedy warns Sickles students about dangers of texting while driving

CITRUS PARK

The windshield of the white truck was shattered, the top dented from the fatal crash. A sticker, "Silly Boys, Trucks R 4 Girls," was still stuck to the front bumper.

Ashley Rath and Nixzalis Vargas looked inside.

"The inside's not that wrecked," Vargas said.

The Sickles High juniors had never thought much about texting and driving until a special program Tuesday brought a tragic visual to their school.

The wrecked truck was last driven in 2009 by Texas teen Alex Brown, who lost control after sending a text message. She crashed in a field and died a few hours later.

Now Alex's family — parents Jeanne and Johnny Mac Brown and sister Katrina, 14 — travel the country warning high school students of the dangers of texting while driving. The Sickles PTSA sponsored the family who drove from their home in Texas with the truck hitched to the back of their vehicle. After putting it on display in the parking lot, the Browns spoke to 10th- and 11th-graders in the school auditorium.

"A choice she made killed her and we want you to learn from her bad choices so you can be here for your future," Jeanne Brown said.

Rath, 18, and Vargas, 17, said the program made them think twice about picking up their cell phones while behind the wheel.

Gina Wood, PTSA president, saw the family on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition about a year ago. On the show, they mentioned starting the Remember Alex Brown Foundation, and Wood eventually contacted them about coming to Sickles.

The Sickles PTSA has made texting while driving a focus this school year. During last week's program, the PTSA encouraged students to sign pledge cards promising not to text and drive. Students also signed a petition in March to send to the Florida Legislature, urging elected officials to pass a texting-while-driving ban. But the PTSA did not send the petition in time, and the legislative session had already ended. The law did not pass this session, but Wood said their efforts are ongoing.

"Schools, cities, organizations are trying to take the law into our hands and get it passed," Wood said. "The students are trying to get it passed."

Sickles is not the only school concerned with students texting and driving. AT&T recently took its "It Can Wait" campaign to Tampa Preparatory School where students learned the dangers of texting while driving.

Alex was on her way to school in Wellman, Texas, and sending a text message when her truck swerved off the road, rolling once and throwing her from the window. Aside from texting, she also was not wearing a seat belt.

Jeanne Brown, a teacher at Alex's school, went looking for her daughter after another teacher said she hadn't shown up for class. She followed the narrow country road Alex sometimes took to school and found her in a field, going in and out of consciousness.

Now, the Browns encourage students to think twice before picking up their phones in the car. They visited their first school in Texas on Dec. 1, 2009 — less than a month after Alex died. Johnny Mac Brown thought they'd be done when the school year ended the following May. But they were hammered with emails, he said, so they kept going. They've been to about 350 schools in 26 states.

Alex was a typical senior, involved in school and church activities, and excited to go to college.

"I had to plan a funeral for my 17-year-old daughter," her mother said. "All I knew were the colors she wanted to use in her dorm room so those are the colors we used at her funeral."

Katrina asked how many in the audience have siblings. "I'm jealous of every single one of you because I don't have my sister anymore," she said when students raised their hands.

Both Rath and Vargas, the Sickles juniors, have siblings. They thought about their families while listening to Katrina talk about getting married someday without her big sister's presence.

"It makes you understand what siblings think," said Rath, who has older and younger siblings. "They do look up to you. You don't really think it will happen to you."

Keeley Sheehan can be reached at (813) 226-3321 or ksheehan@tampabay.com.

Texas family's tragedy warns Sickles students about dangers of texting while driving 05/26/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 26, 2012 5:30am]

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