Democrat Photo by Dan Hust
PARENTS OF SIERRA Cerrone and Ashley Morgan from the left, Joe and Joan Cerrone and Linda Kenny speak at a wrenching Fallsburg assembly Tuesday.
Horror and Heartache; And Words to Live By
By Dan Hust
FALLSBURG December 26, 2006 Raw emotion, raw photos and raw presentations filled the Fallsburg High School auditorium Tuesday.
Standing in front of lifesize images of their daughters, Lorraine Werner, Linda Kenny, and Joe and Joan Cerrone tearfully spoke of the day each of them was told their children had died in horrific car accidents.
“To tell you the truth, I still can’t believe I will never see her again,” said Werner of her daughter Katheryn.
Just 16 when she rounded a curve too fast and slammed into a tree this past October, Katheryn was trapped in her Volvo 850 as it caught fire, her mother related to a whisper-quiet room.
By the time emergency workers arrived at the River Road curve near Woodridge, Katheryn could not be saved.
“All it takes is a second,” said Lorraine, speaking as much of life as any driving distractions her daughter may have faced.
Yet even in death, Katheryn was making a difference, inspiring her friends Fallsburg High School students Emily Grigsby, Krystal Perrello and Lauren Pratt to create this Safe Driving Assembly last week.
It was a heartwrenching, stomach-turning two hours, but one that kept most of these students’ classmates glued to their seats the whole time.
“We took two hours out of today in hopes to extend your life,” explained Principal Mark Plescia to the more than 200 high-schoolers all of whom voluntarily attended.
Understanding how unforgettable an image can be, organizers presented visceral photographs of wrecked cars and accident sites … but they also backed them up with personal, sometimes eyewitness accounts of the tragedies.
“I’ve had to look a father in the eye and say, ‘What kind of outfit do you want to put your daughter in for her funeral?’” recalled Colonial Memorial Funeral Home owner Anthony Perito with a shudder.
“Life stops on a dime,” stressed MobileMedic owner Albee Bochman of Hurleyville, who’s seen hundreds of accidents “and hundreds of dead bodies.”
He asked the audience to hug their neighbors, which the students initially undertook with titters of laughter.
But that didn’t last.
“The reason that’s important,” said a sober Bochman of his request, “is that there is a high chance some of you will be involved in a serious accident.”
There was a warning within that message, too one that Joan Cerrone drove home in an emotional, angry presentation.
“When Sierra died, I died,” she said, her voice cracking. “My little princess was killed that day.”
That day was June 15, 2004, when 14-year-old Sierra, her 15-year-old friend Ashley Morgan, 17-year-old Santiago Mendoza and 18-year-old Maximilian Gonzalez got into a brand new Mercury Mountaineer SUV with driver Brett Cabrera, 17.
All Monticello students, they headed toward Sackett Lake, where Cabrera’s reckless driving put them square into a utility pole and apple tree and ejected the two girls and Gonzalez.
All three died at the scene, while Mendoza and Cabrera were taken to the hospital for their injuries.
“That bum was going like 90,” said Joan Cerrone through gritted teeth. “… And yes, I hate him for that.
“He killed my daughter,” she continued bitterly of the man who is serving three years in prison for the accident and a related charge.
“I have a life sentence,” she added to a shocked crowd. “I pray to God every day that you won’t have to go through what I go through.
“Trying to talk to a teenager is like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree,” Cerrone acknowledged, “[but] if I get to one of you, I’ll be really, really happy.”
That was the thinking of Allan Kelso, as well, a middle-aged Crystal Run Village resident who dramatically illustrated the effects of a car accident.
Painfully hobbling up to the podium, Kelso talked of the drunk-driver crash that killed his parents while he, just 4 at the time, was riding with them.
The brain injuries he sustained resulted in cerebral palsy, and his disfigurement at the hands of this tragedy was plainly evident to the audience.
“Don’t drink and drive,” he told the students, unable to avoid slurring his words.
The wrenching presentations were temporarily calmed when District Attorney Steve Lungen gave a few statistics illustrating the reasons why car accidents are the #1 killer of teenagers in America, but even he, too, told of how his family’s lives were shattered when his 19-year-old sister perished five decades ago in an accident caused by a drunk driver.
His “big, strong” father was reduced to screaming on the floor, while his mother seemed in denial.
“I wouldn’t want anyone in this room to experience that trauma,” Lungen remarked.
“What right do any of you have to put someone else’s life at risk?” he asked the crowd. “When you get into a car, you have to have a conscience on your shoulder… ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t bring kids back.”
A law enforcement officer the students know well, former School Resource Officer and Town of Fallsburg PD Detective Simmie Williams, drove that point home.
“I only met Katheryn Werner one time, and that was in the morgue,” he said, his voice breaking. “I don’t want to see you guys there.”
“I’m not here to scare you, but rather to make you aware,” added Fallsburg graduate Gloria Vazquez, a friend and classmate of Guadalupe “Jasmine” Martinez, who perished in a one-car accident in 2004. “I just don’t want any of you to go through what I went through.”
Vazquez has a few years more driving experience than those she was speaking to, and shortly before watching a tearjerking slide show of Katheryn and Jasmine’s lives, she pleaded with the teens in the audience indeed, with everyone who would listen:
“It is better to get somewhere late and in one piece than never at all.”
Democrat Photo by Dan Hust
ERIN PECK, RIGHT, loads her family into the car in Lake Huntington. From the left are 4-year-old Martin, 6-year-old Jacob and 9-year-old Bruce.
Lack of Pre-K Transportation Takes Toll in SW District
By Dan Hust
JEFFERSONVILLE December 22, 2006 Erin Peck says she followed the rules.
She met the April application deadline.
She talked to all the right people.
She even followed up when she didn’t hear anything for a while.
“I did everything the State Education Department [SED] told me to do,” the Lake Huntington resident recalls.
But the Sullivan West Central School District stood firm: her 4-year-old cannot be bused to St. Peter’s pre-K program in Liberty.
“They said, ‘If we do it for you, we have to do it for everybody,’” Peck says.
That pretty much sums it up, according to SW Superintendent Alan Derry.
“All schools who have a full-fledged pre-K might have some obligation,” he relates, “but we don’t have a pre-K program here.”
SW has a limited pre-K program where about 16-18 special-needs students are accepted annually based on a pre-screening process, according to Derry.
Save for Eldred, all of SW’s neighboring school districts already offer a universal pre-K program.
Jeffersonville resident Kim Breihof tried to get her daughter into SW’s pre-K this year, but the 3-year-old tested at the level of a 4-5-year-old.
“Basically, my daughter’s been discriminated against because she’s smart,” says Breihof.
Breihof and Peck are two of a handful of parents upset with SW for not providing pre-K or even transportation to local private schools offering such.
“They already go to the [three] private schools in Liberty,” Peck explains, referencing SW’s busing of K-12 students to St. Peter’s Catholic school, Light and Life Christian Academy and Glory to God Christian High School.
Instead, Peck and Breihof have to drive their preschool children to St. Peter’s themselves.
“She’s a good hour or hour and a half late to school every day,” says Breihof of her daughter, as the registered nurse has to get her three other children ready for school at SW and then dash off to work after dropping her daughter at St. Peter’s.
Peck, for her part, finds it ironic and frustrating that she has to drive her one son to St. Peter’s while an SW bus takes her two older boys to the same place: St. Peter’s.
According to Derry and SW Board Chair Arthur Norden, state education law indicates that public schools only need to provide transportation to private schools in the same way they do for themselves.
In other words, if SW buses a second-grader to its Jeffersonville campus, by law it must also bus a second-grader to a local private school. There are certain limitations and requirements, but the essence of the law is equal treatment.
Yet while the law is crystal clear on this regarding K-12, it’s not quite as clear on pre-K.
That’s why Norden and Derry have sent the matter to the school’s attorney for review and are awaiting a reply. Thereafter, the board will discuss it in executive session, as it applies to particular students and is thus private.
Breihof and Peck aren’t optimistic, however, and an SED spokesman’s recent remarks do nothing to change that feeling.
“The one certainty in the area of transportation of students to non-public pre-K is that if the child receives special education services and has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) that says the child will attend a particular school, the district must provide transportation,” wrote SED spokesman Tom Dunn to the Democrat’s request for clarifying the law.
“In all other cases, the issue could become the subject of a 310 appeal to the commissioner [of education], wherein a petitioner (parent) appeals to the commissioner to reverse a decision made by a school district,” he continued.
“Recognizing that potential for an appeal, as the commissioner’s spokesman, I am constrained from commenting further.”
“By the time I filed an appeal and got an answer, my daughter would be in kindergarten,” Breihof pointed out.
So for now she’ll keep paying the $555 a month for St. Peter’s pre-K and latchkey programs and deal with the transportation issues even while her husband, a sheriff’s deputy, is intensely training for six months at a K-9 academy.
“It’s just one added stress I shouldn’t have to worry about,” Breihof laments.
Still… “my daughter’s getting an awesome education,” she says firmly.
That’s also why all of Peck’s children continue to go to St. Peter’s, adds Peck, who runs a construction company with her husband, Paul.
“We just want a better education,” she says. “I don’t like what I’ve seen [at SW].”
Both mothers admit the issue will soon be over for them, but what about other families seeking pre-K?
“How can you offer it to some and not to all?” asks Breihof.
It is legal, said Derry, and SW’s pre-K offerings might easily stay limited for a long time to come.
“Absolutely we are not considering it,” Derry said of adding universal pre-K. “It is a tremendous expense, even when it is aided.”