Jay Spilecki was a scholar-athlete. He was extremely talented, respected and well liked by the peers at his high school. One tragic night changed everything.
When Jay died in an automobile accident, it was not confirmed during crisis response that his death was related to alcohol consumption. When that information was established, his tragic death became a cautionary tale for all young people in the community, largely through the efforts of his parents.
There are few available details of the crisis response, which was provided by the very able high school administrator, psychologist, counselors, and school response team, which included members of the district team. At the time, I recall hearing about how gracious Jay’s parents were, reaching out through their grief to cooperate with the school and comfort the students.
A remarkable article, written by Jay’s mother, appears by permission of the author. A letter, sent by the principal to the school community after Jay’s death, follows the article. The letter is edited for confidentiality.
A Short Walk to Deliver a Powerful Lesson
by Sue Spilecki; Teacher, Charter School of Wilmington (Retired)
It’s a short walk from the Charter School of Wilmington, where I teach, across Lancaster Pike to the Silver-brook Cemetery. I make that walk every year with about 250 Charter School students – freshmen who are in my Health and Wellness classes. When we leave school, they think they’re going on some sort of physical fitness field trip. By the time we return, they’ve learned a powerful lesson about the dangers of underage drinking and drunk driving – a lesson that I hope stays with them for the rest of their lives.
In 1996, my son, Jay, was a senior in high school. He was a happy, fun-loving kid – not at all different than the kids I see in high school now. That December, he attended a dance with some friends and later ended up at a party where they were drinking alcohol.
I learned that at about 1:45 a.m., he tricked the designated driver into giving him the car keys and he and two friends jumped into a car to check out another party. On Whitby Road in Sharpley, he lost control of the car and hit a tree. He died instantly.
My ninth grade health and wellness students don’t know any of this when we set out on our walk across Lancaster Pike. Happy and talkative when we leave the school, they grow quiet when we step on to the grass of the cemetery. By the time I have them gather around my son’s grave, they are silent and nervous.
I tell them the lesson is about under-age drinking and driving under the influence of alcohol. I ask if any of them know a family that has been impacted by a drunk driver, and a few always raise their hands. Then I say, “No, you all know someone because you all know me.” I then tell them Jay’s story. I stress to them that he was an awesome high school student with a bright future and loads of friends and a family that loved him, just like them. And like them, he knew lots of kids who drank and made poor decisions, but nothing bad ever happened, so what was the big deal?
But bad things do happen. I learned that fact in 1996.
Since then, I’ve learned that two-thirds of Delaware’s 11th graders drink alcohol and one in four binge drink. I know that 11th graders who drink are 16 times more likely to get in a car with a driver who is a minor and has been drinking than those who don’t drink. I know that they’re three times more likely to be forced to have unwanted sexual intercourse, four times more likely to be arrested and six times more likely to use other drugs.
I share these and other statistics with my students. It would be great if they remember these facts, but what I really want them to remember is that they’re not indestructible; that bad things can and do happen to kids just like them and that they must not drink and drive.
Parents must remember to be parents to their kids and not buddies. Especially as we move into the “party” season – graduations, beach, “senior week” – all this can translate into tragedy if parents do not step up and actively prevent underage drinking.
Don’t serve alcohol to your kids and their friends under the mistaken notion that by keeping them at your house you’re keeping them safe. Join me in the effort to enact a “social host” law in Delaware, to hold people responsible for underage drinking on their property.
Parents – and all adults – must play a more active role in preventing underage drinking. You can learn more about teens and drinking by visiting parentsstepup.org, a website established by Delaware’s Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families.
Or, like my ninth graders, you can learn more by joining me on a short walk across Lancaster Pike.
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Letter Informing Parents:
School District/School Letterhead Date
We were recently saddened in our school community by the sudden death of ____________________. As a school community, we express our condolences to the family and friends of ________________.
Often, when we hear of another’s death, our own feelings about death surface. Teenagers, like adults, begin to think of their own experiences with death and many normal feelings surface. These feelings may focus on the person who died, another person who has died, an impending death, or anxiety about death in general.
As a school staff we encourage you to listen carefully to your young adult, answering questions openly and honestly if they occur, and letting them know that we don’t have all of the answers concerning questions about death.
Accepting their feelings and validating those feelings is beneficial. Confusing emotions may surface periodically, and it is helpful to discuss these feelings with an adult. During the weeks and months ahead, our staff and administration will continue to provide encouragement and support to the student body. If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact our administrative or counseling staff.
We all recognize that our students suffered a deep, psychological wound. During the initial few days following _____________’s death, they supported each other with strength, love and dignity. We are very proud of our [School name] High School family.
Have a safe and healthy holiday.