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Too often, the end of the school year signals tragedy

A man killed Thursday was the sixth recent traffic death involving Inland Empire students.

June 15, 2007|Jonathan Abrams and Sara Lin | Times Staff Writers

The end of the school year is normally a time for celebration, but six traffic-related deaths involving Inland Empire students within a two-week span have parents, school officials and police mourning and concerned that careless behavior may have prompted the tragedies.

On Thursday, a 17-year-old high school student, allegedly intoxicated, ran a stop sign in Adelanto at 60 mph, broadsiding a school bus carrying three children with autism. The children on the bus suffered only minor injuries, but the 17-year-old's brother was killed, CHP Officer Melanie Weaver said.

The collision comes a day after Adrian Barajas, 18, was killed after a San Gorgonio High School graduation picnic at Yucaipa Regional Park, when the car in which he was riding was clipped by a car with four other students, authorities said.

Those tragedies followed a May 30 incident that took the lives of four Perris High School seniors, killed when their car crashed off Interstate 15 in Escondido on their way to a school-sanctioned graduation party at Mission Beach in San Diego.

Authorities warn that some high school students are novice drivers and don't realize that reckless celebrations at the end of the school year that include alcohol can have deadly consequences.

"It is a large responsibility to go out there with a vehicle, especially as congested as Southern California is," said Arden Wiltshire, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department. "You have to pay attention and be on your toes, and kids can get distracted by a lot of things.

"They just don't have as much experience."

Dr. Michele Roland, director of the teenage health center at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, said parents should make a pact with their teenagers so they can call and get a ride home if they are a passenger in a car with a reckless driver.

"They need to talk to young people about the risks involved," Roland said. "Teens are more concerned about getting in trouble than riding with someone. They need to know its OK if they need a ride home and that they can call someone."

Authorities said alcohol was a factor in the Adelanto crash and the incident involving the Perris High School students.

In the San Gorgonio High case, authorities said witnesses reported the cars driving recklessly and above the speed limit, but preliminary findings found that neither alcohol nor racing had a role in the crash.

Two male students in the SUV that carried Barajas remain in critical condition after the car rolled down a steep embankment off Oak Glen Road in Yucaipa. Authorities mistakenly reported that two students had died shortly after the incident.

CHP officers routinely visit area schools during the year and warn students of the dangers of reckless driving and driving under the influence.

"They try to show them that the dangers are a reality and you need to make proper choices and be a safe driver," San Bernardino County sheriff's spokeswoman Jodi Miller said.

"And above all, it's against the law to be drinking if you are under the age of 21."

In the Adelanto incident, the three children, between the ages of 3 and 5, and the bus driver were taken to a hospital with minor injuries.

The 17-year-old driver, who attends a continuation school in the high desert, was taken to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center with serious injuries, Weaver said.

He was arrested as a juvenile on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence of alcohol.

The driver's brother, Hugo Rodriguez, 26, was pronounced dead at the scene, CHP officials said.

The children avoided further injury because they wore seat belts, Weaver said.

"I'm sure it had something to do with why the children were not more seriously injured," Weaver said.

Down the Cajon Pass, students at San Gorgonio High were struggling to cope with their own tragedy Thursday.

Barajas "was quiet, not a troublemaker. He wouldn't start anything," said Destiny Lozano, 16, a junior, who cried Wednesday night after seeing word of the crash on the news.

She said she knew Barajas and one of the crash survivors.

"When I heard, I was in shock. It seemed like a bad dream. They were seniors; you could see what they accomplished. It's just a tragedy," she said.

Crisis counselors were available to students throughout the day.

There were never any plans to postpone Thursday's graduation, said Lissette Lovett, an assistant principal at the school.

"We are going to try our best to honor the students graduating and honor their families,'' she said.

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