Westlake High School’s Performing Arts Center was full of excitement Feb. 15. Senior girls, adorned in perfect hair, makeup and gorgeous prom gowns paired up with senior guys, equally resplendent in formal tuxedos.
They entered as pairs, dancing their way through a festively stage while senior emcees Cara Murthy and Corbin Dunlap described the gowns, tuxes, and each senior model's post-graduation plans.
Principal Mike Freeman hopes they are all alive to see those post-graduation plans come to fruition.
Freeman knows that the deadliest time in young person’s life is the last 100 days of high school. He’s seen the number, the statistics and the devastation left behind after a teenager’s death…especially when drugs, alcohol and texting are involved.
That is why Freeman and school resource officer Scott Fortkamp “sandwiched” the festive prom fashion show with hard-to-hear stories involving death of teens they knew. The juxtaposition of the assembly's sections weren't lost on students, who listened in silence of stories of death.
Fortkamp told of notifying a parents 10 years ago of a son's death, pulling the story from a memory he likes to keep hidden.
“Last year I went to a place in my mind I haven’t been to in a long,” Fortkamp said. “One summer, 9 or 10 years ago I got a call at 2 a.m. from the chief,” he said. “’(The chief said, ‘One of your students was involved in a car accident and killed.’
"There I was at 3 a.m. knocking on the door, telling the mom her son was killed, at age 16, while under the influence.”
Sometimes it’s that passengers in vehicles involved in alcohol or drug related crashes that bear the brunt.
Fortkamp recalls the scene of another accident near Crocker Road involving teenagers.
“The driver was ok,” he said, but added that the passenger,a teenage boy, was trapped in the badly damaged vehicle and rescue workers began peeling away metal from the car.
The passenger's parents had been contacted just after the accident.
“The father came up, then the mother,” Fortkamp said. “The young man was struggling. He took his last breath with his parents only feet away. What do you say to them?”
And on another crash: “We couldn’t tell if it’s a male or female because they were so disfigured,” he said, after recounting another story of how he tried to comfort a dying girl that she was going to be ok."
The message was clear from both Freeman and Fortkamp:
It would be unimaginable if any of the students made a decision that left an empty chair at graduation.
“Make smart decisions, make good choices. Don’t get behind the wheel of a car if Fortkamp said
“Just google ‘prom deaths’ in Northeast Ohio,” Freeman said. “It’s never ‘if,’ it’s always ‘where and when.’
“Every single year it happens,” Freeman said. “Take care of each other. I don’t want to hear the story next year.”
A harrowing tale, a horrific death situation
Freeman concluded the assembly, which was put together by senior parents of the WHS PTSA Prom Assembly Committee, with a harrowing tale from his days of being an assistant principal at Avon Lake High School.
Freeman, who has dealt with 15 to 16 deaths by his count, recalled an incident involving a 2006 Avon Lake High School graduate named Lee.
The year following his graduation he was a back-seat passenger in a car several other Avon Lake students on a joyride on Case Road in North Ridgeville.
“The driver, Neil, lost control, hit a tree and a carport,” Freeman said. “They were all ejected.”
Neil was killed immediately. But one of the injured, who was in the back seat kept asking, “How is Lee?”
The following morning the teen kept asking about Lee.
“We told him there was no Lee,” Freeman said.
Officers who had an uneasy feeling about the injured boy’s comments about Lee went back to the crash scene that day and found Lee’s body.
“They found him on the front bumper of the car in the carport,” Freeman said.
Lee was laid out in an open casket for his funeral, wearing a hat his parents selected because it covered the part of his distorted in the crash. Freeman said he was surprised at the open casket, but it was what Lee’s parents wanted.
“We thought it was important his friends saw what bad decisions lead to,” Freeman said.
Attached, from a lighter portion of the assembly, are Westlake seniors modeling this year's prom fashions.