SHELTON, Wash. – Teacher Carri Fennel has been delivering the same message to her students for years: It is important to get a high school diploma and go to college.
But perhaps the most important message she is now sending is about the message she wishes she had never sent.
Early one morning in 2009, Fennel was driving down SE Brewer Road, a relatively short street that connects her home to Highway 101 in Shelton.
Fennel had left her phone in the car the previous night and noticed that she had a text message from her daughter, who was asking about a relative recently admitted to the hospital.
As a novice texter, Fennel had never tried typing and sending a message while driving. But for some reason she decided to respond to this message.
“It was dark,” she said. “I was just stupid.”
Fennel looked down for a few seconds as she started to type her reply. She never noticed that the car was slowly drifting to the left.
“And then I looked up and Jim – all I could see was the white of his sweatshirt,” Fennel recalled. “And I – I hit him. You couldn’t stop.”
Jim was Fennel’s neighbor. That morning he was walking along the road with his wife and friends.
Fennel immediately jumped out of the car, called 911 and ran to Jim’s side.
“I was holding his hand and I was talking to him,” she said. “I just didn’t want him to die, that was the biggest issue. I was scared to death.”
Jim did not die. But a severe brain injury has drastically changed his life.
It changed Fennel’s life, too.
“He is such a good person,” Fennel said. “How could I be so stupid and so something and hurt somebody?”
Without hesitation, Fennel pleaded guilty to vehicular assault.Her punishment was probation after dozens of her peers and students sent letters of support to the court.
But her guilt received a life sentence.
Friends and students were first-hand witnesses to how the accident changed Fennel.
“It was difficult to watch,” said Lori Chappell, a longtime friend and co-worker.
Fennel logged many of her feelings in a journal:
“If someone sees me happy, will they think that I don’t care?”
“The ripple is so massive, it feels like a tidal wave – no, a flash flood that is pushing its heavy weight on all in its path, drowning me and everyone around me.”
“I never want this to happen to anyone else. No one should go through this pain – ever.”
Fennel returned to work, but for months, she never left her classroom, afraid of what people thought.
Texting and driving
The statistics are startling when it comes to texting and driving. About one-third of drivers admit to texting and driving. The number is even higher for teenage drivers.
Fennel realizes that this is becoming a major traffic-safety issue, so she now speaks publicly and shares her story on a regular basis. She wants all drivers, especially students, to know about the consequences of texting while driving. It has become her mission.
“Had Jim died, I would be in prison right now,” Fennel recently told an auditorium filled with students at Oakland Bay Junior High in Shelton. “I can’t even explain the emotions you have when you cause harm to other people.”
She wants everyone to know that it only takes once.
“It’s an unfortunate story, but she has taken a negative and tried to turn it into a positive,” said Gerry Apple, who teaches drivers education and advises Shelton High School’s Students Against Destructive Decisions group.
In Fennel’s classroom at CHOICE High School, students are getting the message.
“I think of Carri every time my phone goes off,” said student Alexa Koester. “I think about what she would say to me when I want to read that text message.”
As for Jim’s family, Fennel knows that many of his relatives have forgiven her.
“I don’t know how they can do that,” she said while holding back tears.
Friends said that Fennel has taken important steps forward by sharing her story and encouraging others to turn off their phones while driving.
“She has got her joy back, but it’s a different kind of joy now,” Chappell said.
Fennel has not driven since the 2009 accident. She lost her license for two years after pleading guilty and has been hesitant to get it back. But she does hopes to get behind the wheel again in the near future.