Been-there, done-that: Sherburne County seniors as role models

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY
  • Star Tribune
  • August 28, 2012 - 4:44 PM

Sexting? Drugs and alcohol? Bullying? Welcome, ninth graders, to high school.

Sure, you'll be taught American history, literature and mathematical equations you won't remember five years from now. But you'll also learn about the consequences for texting while driving, how truancy could land you in court, and how threats via the Internet will not be tolerated.

And your mentors? They're not teachers or the principal. They're 12th graders -- kids who stood in your shoes just a few years ago, whose footsteps you need to follow, or possibly pay the consequences.

These high-school seniors -- many of them considered the top students in their respective schools -- were handpicked to lead a "Together Inspiring Education and Success" program that was used at Elk River High School last year and has now been spread throughout Sherburne County. The TIES program combines forces from various institutions -- the sheriff's and county attorney's offices, police departments and four high schools.

But it's the seniors -- some of whom relay wisdom they've gleaned through personal experience -- who give the program its crucial street cred.

"Be the face that they look for," Sherburne County Deputy Roxanne Schreder told a room filled with selected high-school seniors from Elk River, Zimmerman, Big Lake and Becker.

Some have their own stories to tell.

Taylor Gillispie, 17, a Zimmerman High School senior, hopes to attend Hamline University and study psychology and criminal justice. But she's already learned first-hand about the dangers of driving with raucous passengers who have little regard for safety.

She said she recently was driving 55 miles per hour on a county road when a passenger grabbed the steering wheel. The police told her that her car rolled over six times after it hit a ditch. One back-seat passenger suffered a concussion and a fractured collarbone. Another, who wasn't wearing a seat belt, suffered brain trauma and ripped his lip and ear. Taylor sprained her ankle.

Hannah Merwin, 17, says she's been in charge of Becker High School's seat-belt safety program for two years.

"I have a real passion for it," said Hannah, who hopes to attend the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "My friend was in a car accident. There are certain habits that students need to get into, for everybody's sake."

Karisa Zacher, 17, another Zimmerman High School senior, was particularly interested when Victoria Powell, a Sherburne County prosecutor who talked to the seniors about cyber bullying and sexting, began her portion of the two-day program by discussing truancy.

Karisa hopes to study criminal justice and social work, possibly at Minnesota State in Mankato. But there was a time when attending school daily was not a priority.

"I was in foster care, and in middle school I wouldn't do my homework," she recalled. "I didn't care about going to school every day.

"I've been on the other side. I can tell you, going to school is much better. I want to spread that message."

The way that message is conveyed can be as crucial as the message itself, said Elk River Principal Terry Bizal. Get to know the freshmen you will meet, Bizal told the seniors. Know their schedules, how often they can meet and the best way to make a connection -- whether it be through Facebook, by texting or even in person.

School officials also emphasized, again and again, how confidentiality is crucial. One student's problem or concern is nobody else's business. Trust is vital if the program is to be successful.

"If you tell one person something, you might as well put it on Facebook," Powell told the seniors.

The seniors will be rewarded for their efforts with $500 scholarships. Abigail Gabriel, 16, a senior at Elk River High School interested in studying to be a psychiatrist, hopes to use her scholarship at Yale University or the University of Chicago.

"I moved here from Santa Clara a year ago and know what it's like to be brand new to a school, and the excitement and pressures that come with that," Abigail said. "Elk River High School is my community now, and I want to invest in it.

"I want to be a face that the new kids can rely on."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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