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It was clear to Maria Batistoni what the agenda of the first meeting of the newly-formed Students Against Driving Drunk at North Hardin High School needed to be in the fall of 1988.
“They needed to heal, they were raw,” she said of the students.
More than 200 students had joined the club, formed months after the bus crash near Carrollton that killed 27 people, including 24 children. Some were students at North.
“What do the kids need?” Batistoni said she asked herself. “What do I need? We need a hug.”
And so that’s what she gave them. With everyone seated together for their first meeting, she asked everyone to embrace the person next to them.
Starting the club was a personal project for Batistoni, now retired as a teacher at North. Batistoni and her son were supposed to be taking that trip to King’s Island with members of Radcliff First Assembly of God. But a school activity that her son, Joseph, was participating in was scheduled for the same day, and she was needed as a chaperone.
After the crash, Joseph came to her and asked her to start a SADD chapter at the school. A chapter had previously existed at the school but it had disbanded a couple of years before.
“It always hit home a little bit more because we could have been on that bus,” she said.
The impact of the Carrollton bus crash on the local SADD chapters and the national Mothers Against Drunk Driving organization was large. SADD’s presence at the local schools has fluctuated through the years but its program Project Graduation is a community-wide event now.
For MADD, the crash created a system of responding to tragedies that was adopted by the American Red Cross and launched the involvement of Karolyn Nunnallee, who would go on to be the organization’s national president in the late 90s.
Nunnallee lost her 10-year-old daughter, Patty, in the crash.
“Two weeks after the crash, I knew I had to do something,” she said. She met with local MADD volunteer Lelia Haddle to learn about MADD and to begin regaining “a sense of control” in her life.
While her involvement in the organization was beginning, she was also on the receiving end of their services. Janice Lord, the director of crisis response for MADD at the time, pulled together the first crisis response team to begin helping the families impacted by the crash. The team was made up of people who had lost children in wrecks, who had been in a wreck, or who had burn injuries.
For Nunnallee, the creation of the teams was one of the most important things to come from the crash, which she credits to Lord.
“Her willingness to say we need this and we need it right now” made it happen, she said.
Nunnallee has since served on a team that responded to a crash in Indiana.
“It was kind of like going full circle,” she said.
Nunnallee’s career with MADD has evolved through the years. She started two community-level chapters and she now works with a program that focuses on all types of impaired driving.
Like Nunnallee, SADD has evolved as well. In 1997, SADD’s name changed to Students Against Destructive Decisions and now includes a broader focus, including other types of impaired driving, dating violence and bullying.
Elizabethtown High School and John Hardin High School both have chapters, and have come together to form a Hardin County SADD as well. Both school groups now focus on the positive choices that teens can make.
Peggy Snow, the SADD adviser at John, said she wanted to avoid the image of a club that hands out lists of banned activities and instead wanted to focus on the right decisions that students already make.
“The majority of our kids are doing the right thing, they want to do the right thing,” she said.
Kee-Hup Yong, a sophomore at Elizabethtown High School, said he felt that the broad focus was needed because of the many ways that students can disrupt their lives and the lives of others.
“There’s so many ways to make a bad decision,” Yong said.
The change took place while Batistoni was still working with the SADD at North. She was pleased with the expanded focus as well.
“As we evolve, we have to make sure our instructions evolve as well,” she said.
Though North doesn’t currently have a SADD chapter, its legacy is felt throughout the community every graduation night. Batistoni learned about Project Graduation through the national SADD organization, and brought it to North. Project Graduation is a night-long celebration for seniors, but is held at the high school and keeps the students off the streets and involved in positive activities. Project Graduation is a long-time institution throughout the community now.
“You don’t have to explain it anymore,” she said. “It’s part of the community and needs to be part of the community.”
Batistoni still works with North’s program. And while the early days of SADD at North focused on healing, she said she still doesn’t feel the community has ever truly recovered from the crash. It continues to stay in Batistoni’s thoughts.
“Not a day goes by without me thinking about the children on that bus,” she said.
Kelly Cantrall can be reached at (270) 505-1747 or firstname.lastname@example.org.