LaGRANGE — More than 800 teenagers around Troup County placed their fate in the hands of total strangers this week and learned to live with the consequences.
The students, all ninth graders from LaGrange, Troup and Callaway high schools, took their first walk into the future on Wednesday and Thursday at the fifth annual Teen Maze event. The maze was held at the Callaway Conference Center on the West Georgia Technical College campus.
The teens attended a mock party with drugs and alcohol, witnessed a deadly traffic accident involving drinking and driving, attempted to drive home intoxicated then learned the outcome of all their decisions thus far by LaGrange police officers.
“It’s like role play,” said TiShari McFarland, public health educator with the Troup County Health Department. “With the help of the LaGrange Fire Department, LaGrange Police Department and AMR we show (students) specifics of drinking and driving with an accident scene. Then they come into the maze and choose scripts that tell them their fate, whether they’ll end up pregnant or graduate from high school.”
According to Senior Police Officer Wesley Engle, some students were sent directly to jail, others attended their own funeral or the funeral of a friend, and some teens were granted permission to continue to another party. Inside the maze, a roll of the dice, spin of the wheel or opinion of one person determined how each student’s life progressed from there.
The choices placed ninth graders on a path of either success or hardship.
Some teens graduated from high school, others became teenage parents and learned the difficulties of having children while still in school. Students were asked to wear simulated pregnancy bellies and experienced each trimester.
Other simulations included a facing a judge and being locked up by Troup County sheriff’s deputies for committing a crime, learning the dangers of smoking and finding out they had an STD.
“People don’t know exactly what can happen to you,” Callaway High student Savannah Addison, 15, said. “There’s pregnancy, STDs and a lot of problems that come with them, like death or affecting your children. … You come to Teen Maze and you realize there’s a lot of random stuff.”
“The biggest impact for me was seeing my friends ‘die,’” explained Callaway High student Jaylynn Baynhal, 14. “My sisters were there too. One ‘died’ after she was in a car accident, she was hit by a drunk driver. The other one got pregnant.”
Baynhal said she enjoyed the maze so much, she went through it four times on Thursday.
“It was fun,” she stated. “I learned not to have sex — just abstinence, abstinence, abstinence — and to graduate from school.”
McFarland said helping students make the decision to complete high school and receive their diploma without unnecessary risks is also an integral part of Teen Maze.
“I love to see the reactions on the kids faces when something clicks with them,” she said. “When they watch the accident scene or see the pictures of the effects of STDs.
“The teen pregnancy rates are going down in Troup County,” McFarland continued. “We don’t know for sure if that is because of (Teen Maze) but we’d like to keep them going down.”
“It’s really interesting to see how many options you have in life,”Addison stated. “The good thing about life is you can mostly choose the option for yourself. Here, they choose for you.”
There are Teen Maze events in several counties around the state, but McFarland said the experience for Troup County mainly focuses on the effects of teenage pregnancy, plus underage alcohol and drug abuse.
“I hear kids who went through this years ago still talking about it today,” McFarland said. “They remember the scripts they got, phrase for phrase, and they’re not pregnant or alcoholics. Some are actually at LaGrange College and now they’re here, volunteering. Obviously, people are remembering and it meant something to them.”
The event is mainly for ninth graders, but McFarland said there is time set aside each day for parents to attend Teen Maze as well.
The Troup County Health Department partnered with several local organizations, including the Troup County Prevention Coalition, Twin Cedars, Troup County School System and the United Way.
Melanie Ruberti is a reporter at LaGrange Daily News. She may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2156.