A Loudoun County mother complained last week that a driver safety presentation shown earlier this month at area high schools featuring photos of mangled corpses at the scenes of car accidents was too graphic.
The complaint comes as school officials are trying to find the best way to alert teenagers to the dangers of unsafe driving after a string of recent fatal car accidents involving young drivers across the region.
The talk was given to sophomores at Broad Run, Heritage and Dominion high schools by an off-duty state trooper who described mistakes he has seen teens make -- including drag racing, becoming distracted in the car and drinking -- and their consequences. He also gave a slide show of photos taken at accident scenes in Virginia, including one depicting a decapitated body and one in which a man's face had been ripped off.
Melanie Bancroft, whose daughter Summer saw the presentation at Broad Run, said during the public comment session at a School Board meeting Tuesday that the images were too violent and that she was not told in advance that the presentation would be taking place. Several board members sympathized with Bancroft but said that shocking photos might be an effective way to reach students.
Bancroft said in an interview that her daughter reported that several students who saw the photos were moved to tears. She said her daughter, who knew a student in Fairfax County who was killed recently in a car accident, had trouble eating and sleeping after the presentation.
Bancroft said she thinks that the program was given with the best of intentions but that there was little sensitivity as to how the gory photos might affect different students. She said the solution was better parental notification. At the presentation this year, students were warned they were about to see graphic material, but no letters had been sent to parents.
"I respect that some people feel differently than I do about this," Bancroft said. "Parents should really be aware of what these slides are. They're not just some graphic slides. These are pictures of corpses that are being shown to students."
High school principals discussed the issue Wednesday and decided to continue with the presentation but to send parents a form allowing them to opt their children out of the talk.
Dominion Principal W. John Brewer said he had received calls from parents disturbed about news accounts of fatal accidents and asking what the school was doing to help prevent them.
"There is an overwhelming sense among all of us in our community that we need to be bold and proactive in our response to the tragedies we're experiencing all around us," Brewer said. "My sense is that the vast majority of our parents would be grateful for the approach."
Brewer said students who have grown up watching violent television shows and movies can be especially difficult to reach. "The graphic pictures lend a sense of credibility," he said. "This is real dangerous stuff. And it's not the movies, and it's not make-believe."
At the same time, Brewer said, it was important that parents feel they are part of the process. In addition to sending letters home next year, he said he would try to set up an event in which parents could hear the talk, too, and see the photos themselves.