Sadness. Silence. Tears.
Students and staff at two metro Atlanta high schools spent Tuesday comforting each other and attempting to comprehend the incomprehensible: the deaths of six students in two collisions on different ends of Fulton County.
The collisions took place, in a sad twist, on the same state highway, Ga. 92, approximately 40 miles from each other.
The first occurred at 1:15 p.m. Monday at Ga. 92 and Butner Road in south Fulton. Four Langston Hughes High School students died when their Lincoln Navigator struck a tractor-trailer, police said. A fifth student, Lexus Todd, was hospitalized with leg injuries and bleeding in the brain.
“Losing one student can really have a psychological impact,” said Shannon Flounnory, the district’s executive director for safety and security. “Unfortunately, this community has lost four of its extended family members.”
The second fatal wreck took place around 3:40 p.m. Monday in Roswell, at Ga. 92 and West Road. James Pratt, 18, a senior at Cobb County's Lassiter High School, and his younger brother, Joe, 14, a freshman, were killed when they hit a school bus carrying special-needs students, police said. None of the special-needs students were seriously injured, authorities said. The Pratt brothers were headed to a dental appointment, said Lassiter High principal Chris Richie.
“There are no words that ease the pain that has devastated our Lassiter family and left us heartbroken,” Richie wrote in a letter Tuesday to parents, faculty and students.
Roswell police said Tuesday the cause of that crash was under investigation. Funeral services for the brothers have been set for 2 p.m. Sunday at Piedmont Church, 570 Piedmont Rd., Marietta.
Fulton County police say the driver of the Navigator ran a red light, causing the wreck there.
The Langston Hughes High students killed in the crash were identified late Tuesday by the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office as Isaiah Gregory, 15, Cameron Jones, 16, Ke’Ariy Lopez 14, and Octavious Rhodes, 16.
It was unclear Tuesday whether the Langston Hughes students had permission to be off campus Monday when the wreck took place. Classes typically end at 3:30 p.m. Like most school districts, Fulton County prohibits students from leaving campus during the day without permission from a parent and the principal. The rules are explained in the school district's student handbook. School district officials wouldn't confirm whether the students were supposed to be on campus at the time of the crash.
Flounnory said school district officials discuss safe driving habits with students. Monday’s wreck, he believes, stops students from saying “that it can happen to someone else.”
“Now, our students are in a position to understand it can happen to you,” he said.
Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers and a former school resource officer in Hoover, Ala., said he’s seen more students killed in car wrecks near the end of the school year.
“Spring fever is a real thing,” he said. “Students have been inside for seven, eight months. They’re ready to get out. It’s a dangerous period of time.”
Tragically, fatal vehicle collisions involving multiple students have become an annual occurrence in Georgia. Thursday marks the one-year anniversary of four University of Georgia students killed when their vehicle crossed the center line in Watkinsville and struck another vehicle. Two years ago this month, five Georgia Southern University nursing students were killed on Interstate 16 near Savannah. A tractor-trailer driver pleaded guilty to causing the wreck. In November 2015, two brothers who attended Gwinnett County's Dacula High were killed when their vehicle struck another car on their way to school.
Grief counselors, psychologists and social workers were at the two schools torn by Monday's tragedies.
Thoughts and tributes to the students poured in from classmates, principals and elected officials.
At Langston Hughes, officials used phrases like "insurmountable grief" to describe the emotions inside the school. One of the victims was described as a nice guy who got along with everyone.
Students Keon Roache and Darius Moon said the students killed were always energetic and uplifting, and that the crash had sucked he life out of the school. “You couldn’t hear … anything, in the cafeteria or anywhere. It was so quiet,” said Moon, a junior.
Some metro Atlanta police agencies said Tuesday that teenage drivers aren’t routinely cited for violating laws related to the number of passengers in the car. For teenage drivers with a specific permit, state law prohibits more than three passengers unrelated to the driver in the vehicle who are less than 21 years old.
At Lassiter, many wore red ribbons to honor the Pratt brothers, along with creating a GoFundMe account to help the family with funeral expenses.
James and Joe were remembered for volunteering for special events and after school programs at a nearby elementary school. They were also active in Lassiter's Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps. Capt. Jim Minta, head naval sciences officer at the school's ROTC program, spoke with red eyes about the brothers.
Freshman Scott Clyburn remembered his buddy, Joe, on Twitter.
“Joe was special,” Scott said in an interview. “He was that guy who was there for you. Always. He could make you laugh when you thought you couldn’t. Joe was more than a friend.”
Blake Taylor worked with James the past seven months at the UPS shipping hub in Roswell. He felt awful as soon as he recognized James’ car on television underneath that school bus.
“He was always smiling,” even if he wasn’t happy, Taylor said. “But he was always polite.”
The sentiments of many across the region were expressed in a Twitter post by the staff of Roswell High School’s student newspaper.
“Our thoughts are with the students and families of Langston Hughes High School & Lassiter High School,” they wrote. The tweet ended with the image of a heart.
Kristin Hemingway said she met one of the victims who attended Langston Hughes several years ago when the student was at Crawford Long Middle School, where she works as a mentor through a community partnership.
Hemingway spent Tuesday coming to terms with the reality that a young man whose future seemed ahead of him is gone.
“You want to believe that everybody gets a chance to grow up,” Hemingway said. “And that’s not true.”