Tenth graders across Bulloch County recently dealt with some heavy issues: teen pregnancies, drug overdoses, sexually transmitted diseases, drinking parties and jail time. Though they were just simulated experiences, the Bulloch County Alcohol and Drug Council hopes the message was received loud and clear.
Statesboro High School was the most recent school to offer the Teen Maze — a unique, interactive learning exercise that allows students to experience realistic situations in a practical, safe environment. Southeast Bulloch and Portal High Schools held the Teen Mazes the previous week.
In order to proceed through the maze, students must make decisions based on their original "choice," a card they randomly draw at the Experience 1 table. The card gives the students a scenario — anything from underage drinking or drug use to teen pregnancy to an STD — and tells them where to proceed next.
Through the interactive simulation, the kids experience the consequences of poor decision-making with real-life examples.
The ultimate challenge is to get through the maze and graduate high school. Students whose scenarios eventually send them to the graduation table receive a slice of cake, a bullhorn blown in their honor and applause from the volunteers — the many community professionals, college students and older high school students volunteer their time for the yearly event. A group from the Statesboro Police Department also puts in volunteer time each year.
"We couldn't do this without our wonderful volunteers," said Renee Perry, counselor at the Transitions Learning Center and one of the coordinators of the event.
Each group that goes through the maze starts the experience in a simulated underage drinking and drug party. With loud music and lights flashing and a pretend game of beer pong, volunteers "encourage" the students to drink and do drugs.
Unbeknownst to the students, shortly after the pretend party begins, Statesboro Police Officers raid the party and "arrest" the underage drinkers.
"The officers may arrest all of the students with red cups," Perry said. "Word gets around to other classes, 'Don't get the red cup,' so we change it up throughout the day."
Those arrested students are taken to a fenced in area, a "jail cell," and officers talk with the kids about underage drinking. Those not arrested and, eventually, the kids released from jail start at the first experience table for their scenario.
Officer Jennifer Strosnider said she enjoys taking part in this activity and visiting schools.
"It helps (for) your face to be out there, for the kids to see us in this kind of setting — helps them to be comfortable talking with us when they need us," she said.
One scenario sent students to the Substance Abuse Treatment table, where they spoke with three young men who are currently in a men's yearlong halfway house program. One man in his early 20s told the kids, "When I was your age, it was really hard to comprehend that I could ever get to this point."
The 18-year-old at the table said, "I started doing drugs when I was 13. I never thought that I would have to leave high school to get into a treatment program."
Some students' scenarios sent them to the hospital table, where Bulloch County EMS Nikki Evans volunteers. She sits in a wheelchair, for effect, and hands kids cards that might say, "You were texting and driving and ejected from the car. You're paralyzed from the waist down." Or, "You were sober and hit by a drunk driver." Or, "You overdosed at a pharm party. Proceed to the funeral home."
For Evans, these scenarios are real-life experiences she's dealt with as a paramedic.
"You'd be surprised how many people these kinds of things really happen to," she said. "I tell the kids, 'This isn't just a time you get to take a break from class. This is real life.' "
If one of Evans' cards sends the student to the funeral home table, the student writes his own eulogy right next to an actual coffin.
Some students stop by the community service table and speak with Mr. Tucker from the Department of Juvenile Justice. Those students don vests and pick up trash before they can move on.
At the pregnancy center, the students wear an "empathy belly" to simulate a pregnancy and students from Ogeechee Tech describe in detail the three trimesters of a pregnancy. From there, the student heads to the parenting center and is given a doll to carry around for the remainder of the maze — including to the graduation table, if their card sends them that way.
"We always remind them they can still graduate with the choices they make," Perry said. "Even if you make a mistake you can still graduate; it's just harder."
Denise Roberts, who works at Ogeechee Tech and served cake at the grad table, added, "When you make the right decisions, it's always easier."
Cheri Wagner, who has worked in an emergency room for over 20 years, assisted kids at the Exit Interview table.
"We try to be realistic with the kids," Wagner said. "We share through our life experiences or jobs what can happen. I've seen high school drug addicts and STD kids come through the ER. … The 80s saying of 'just say no' isn't as effective as it was then. The Teen Maze shows real life choices and consequences."
One student, Cody, didn't get the treat of cake and a bullhorn. He was jailed for underage drinking, jailed again for littering and spent time doing community service trash pick-up before dying of an overdose of Xanax.
Though he chuckled slightly at picking up trash with his buddies, Cody became serious at his final card, saying, "I didn't know you could die from taking two pills." He wrote on his eulogy that he would never get to try skydiving.
Javier's experience was slightly different, but he didn't make it to graduation either. In referring to his scenario, he said, "I smoked Spice and went to the hospital to get my stomach pumped. I was given a second chance at a treatment center, but I went back to drugs. Then to jail. And that's where it ends for me."
Joyce Stubbs, Director of Bulloch County Alcohol and Drug Council who financially sponsors the Teen Maze each year, hopes the students take home the powerful message of making good choices — in high school and beyond.