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History teacher tells students a sobering story

April 21, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

Hedgesville, W.Va. - After all the prom dresses are altered, the tuxedos rented and the dinner plans set, teacher Eric Brown reserves one more seat for his students - one he hopes they'll never have the horror of sitting in.

For the Hedgesville High School students in Brown's U.S. History classes, the day before prom means closing their minds to partying and dressing up and opening their eyes to drunk driving, death and their community.

It is on that day that for the past five years Brown has shown his students two videos that hit close to home.

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"Real Stories of the Highway Patrol", filmed in 1996 by crew members from "Dateline," shows footage from inside West Virginia State Police Trooper Kevin Plumer's patrol vehicle. Plumer was on a high speed pursuit along U.S. 11 south of Martinsburg of a suspected drunk driver, Robert Lee Smallwood Jr.

Smallwood's car slammed into the back of a Ford Escort, pushing it into a utility pole.

The driver of the Escort was killed.

The victim, Amanda Smailes was 21 years-old, a friendly face at the Wal-Mart where she worked, a nursing student at Shepherd College and one of Brown's good friends.

When he first showed the video five years ago his students remembered the story.

"It really relates to this area and this community," Brown said. "It still has an effect.

Brown said Smailes' funeral was the largest he ever attended.

He plays the video the day before prom because he knows students are thinking about partying and potentially making bad decisions.

Smailes' death caused her mother to push for a policy to regulate high-speed pursuits by police officers.

But Brown wants students to focus on Smallwood's decision instead of Plumer's pursuit.

Sparkman, who admitted he had been drinking at a local bar before driving that night, was later indicted on a felony charge of DUI causing death. He was sentenced to 10 years, but only served about five.

"I don't want you to look at this as a high speed pursuit. I want you to look at this as some guy who went into a bar, got behind the wheel and then took someone's life," Brown said.

But Brown also wants students to focus on Smailes' mother. Brown remains friends with Cynthia Smailes-Rybak. He still goes on vacations with her family, he said.

The second video was filmed by a teacher at Musselman High School and portrays Smailes-Rybak and her reaction to Amanda's death.

Some students have gone through the day crying after watching the videos, he said.

Brown said he has had students tell him they planned to go home after prom with their friends. They planned to stay inside.

"When you see what the mother has to go through the days, the weeks and the years after her daughter's death - that's what really gets to them," he said.

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