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'Life is precious. Don't ruin it because of one night'
Prom season promotes safety precautions

LAWRENCEVILLE - Leland Martin was a good kid.

The Winder-Barrow High School senior was an honors student with a bright future. He was headed to Young Harris College after graduation. He had never been in trouble, so the news of his death shook his community.

Martin was found dead last year at an after-prom party in Auburn. An autopsy found the 18-year-old had been drinking alcohol and passed out. Too intoxicated to move, Martin's breathing was obstructed and he suffocated.

Martin's story is tragic, but it's a tale authorities say is all too familiar during prom season.

"Unfortunately ... we lose a lot of kids around prom season and graduation," said Barbara Jones, the state coordinator for Students Against Destructive Decisions. "Most children have the attitude, 'It won't happen to me.'"

Dangerous temptations

Grayson High School junior Merritt Ryan-Jones hasn't attended a prom, but she knows of the pressures that students face that evening.

The pressure to drink alcohol.

The pressure to do drugs.

The pressure to have sex.

The best way to combat these pressures, she said, is to have the confidence to say no. Ryan-Jones and other members of Grayson's SADD chapter are encouraging their peers to do just that by asking people to sign a "Prom Promise" and turn down the dangerous temptations.

Leila Povlak, the mother of a Central Gwinnett High School senior, said prom night presents some concerns. She said she's not as worried about the party afterwards - she'll be checking with other parents to make sure alcohol isn't served - but she is concerned about the commute to and from the dance.

Like many Gwinnett schools, Central is having its prom in Atlanta. Povlak said her concern is that a car full of friends could distract a teenage driver, leading to an accident.

"I'd prefer if the kids would get a limo rather than driving themselves," she said. "That would take the wheel out of their hands. That's my biggest concern."

Other parents say the prom commute also worries them.

"It's a late night after a long day," said Kris Freeman, a Barrow County resident. "Anything can happen."

Staying safe

In Barrow County, where people still feel the pain of losing Martin, a group of community members are creating a safe environment where kids can go after the prom and have fun.

Freeman and the others who are organizing the "Winder After Dark" post-prom party don't have children who are going to prom. But they knew Martin, and they know their community. There's not a lot for teens to do in the area. And after midnight, it's illegal for those under 18 to be out.

So for one night, the group is bringing nightlife to Winder-Barrow's gymnasium. They'll have a tiki bar that serves mocktails (nonalcoholic cocktails), a dance club with a DJ, sporting competitions, a movie theater showing new releases, an airbrush tattoo studio, a garage band and an Irish pub named in honor of Martin.

"If we had had this last year, Leland would have come," Freeman said. "He was studious and a hard worker, but he wanted to have fun. The only fun going on that night was that party."

It's been difficult to drum up support for the event - more than 100 volunteers are needed to set up, chaperone or clean up - and ticket sales have been slow. But Freeman and the others are convinced they just need one year to make an impression.

"At some point, we want this to be the obvious place they want to be going," she said.

To make sure the attendees are safe, Freeman said parents are required to sign permission slips before students buy tickets. Students must check in by 12:30 a.m., or their parents will be called. And they won't be allowed to leave early unless their parents come and pick them up from the school.

Those rules might not be popular, she said, but they may end up saving someone's life.

Ryan-Jones, the Grayson student, said students need to think about their actions on prom night.

"Life is precious," she said. "Don't ruin it because of one night."

SideBar: Local Prom Nights

Saturday

· Grayson High: Fernbank Museum of Natural History

· South Gwinnett: Gwinnett Center

April 26

· Buford High: Train Depot in Gainesville

· Central Gwinnett High: The Foundry at Puritan Mill

· Dacula High: Gwinnett Center

· Duluth High: Fernbank Museum of Natural History

· Meadowcreek High: Crowne Plaza Perimeter

· Parkview High: The Westin Buckhead

May 3

· Apalachee High School: The Georgia Club

· Norcross High:

Location has not yet been announced

· North Gwinnett High: Gwinnett Center

· Peachtree Ridge: Evergreen Conference Center, Stone Mountain Park

· Shiloh High: Georgia Tech Hotel

· Winder-Barrow High School: Athens Classic Center

May 10

· Berkmar High: The Metropolitan Club, Alpharetta

· Brookwood High: The Westin Peachtree Plaza

· Mill Creek High: Gwinnett Center

Safety Tips

Don't leave your beverage unattended.

Don't drink and drive or ride with an intoxicated driver.

Always wear your seat belt.

If you are in an uncomfortable situation, call your parents or a trusted adult for a ride.