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The Detroit News
Family of teen killed in accident while working on side of road wants to halt MDOT Youth Corps.
By Mike Martindale
August 13, 2008
FARMINGTON -- A lawsuit filed Tuesday in Oakland Circuit Court seeks to abolish the Michigan Department of Transportation's Youth Corps program after a 16-year-old participant was killed by an errant driver in June.
"This lawsuit is clearly the only way to get the state to take our best and brightest students out of harm's way rather than the side of a freeway," said Richard Bernstein, one of two attorneys representing the family of Elisa Skinner-Bell.
"It's outrageous and irresponsible that they have children, honor students, out alongside the state's busiest roads. There were no signs or lights warning motorists that they were there. And the children had no safety training. All they gave them was a protective vest. "They (state) make more modifications for prisoners."
Elisa was killed and a 19-year-old co-worker injured at 1:13 p.m. on June 27 -- her first day on the job -- while working along Interstate 696 near Lahser Road in Southfield. Police said Gary E. Hall of Plymouth apparently fell asleep behind the wheel of his 2005 Ford Excursion and ran off the road, plowing into the MDOT road crew vehicle the teens were using. Elisa was standing next to the vehicle and did not survive her injuries.
Police initially said alcohol was not a factor in the crash. The Michigan State Police investigator was unavailable Tuesday to say whether Hall will face charges.
The lawsuit seeks damages from Hall, but also an injunction to stop MDOT from running its Youth Corps program.
Shortly after the crash, stunned relatives learned that the MDOT Youth Corps program was still operating.
Erica Bell, who is acting as the family's spokeswoman, said the accident had little effect on the MDOT program.
"About a month after (Elisa) passed, her father was driving out and came across another crew of kids, doing the exact same thing next to the road," said Erica Bell, Elisa's aunt. "Nothing had changed. It was like a kick in the heart."
Bernstein said MDOT requires that rules and regulations be followed for any other contractors who do work for MDOT -- including the Department of Corrections -- but not for its own Youth Corps program. One requirement is that proper signage, lights, safety cones and barriers be in place at all times, he said.
"But they put kids out on the road and don't follow the same guidelines," Bernstein said.
Devon Pannecouk, an MDOT spokesman, said there have been no changes in the Youth Corps program since the accident.
"There has never been an incident like that involving the program," said Pannecouk, who noted it is against department policy to discuss matters of current or pending litigation.
Pannecouk said the Youth Corps program has been in operation since 2005, and described it as a Metro Detroit mentoring program designed to give an opportunity and inspire high school age students' "interest in the field of transportation and education after high school."
This year Skinner-Bell and 103 other teenagers 16 to 18 years old were hired, along with 34 supervisors at least 18 years old, and paid between $8 and $10.50 an hour.
"It's very competitive and you have to have above a 2.5 grade point and above-average attendance at school to even be considered," Pannecouk said.
"We get more than 3,000 applications each year for about 140 jobs."
Erica Bell said the new job had Elisa's spirits high after several unsuccessful efforts to find work.
The Farmington Central High student had just received her drivers' permit, was taking a photography class and looking forward to attending Vacation Bible School, where she often helped out instructing younger attendees.
"She was excited about this summer, she had a lot of things going for her," Erica Bell said, adding that the girl planned to work with special-needs children some day.
Pat Karas, director of adult and community education in Farmington schools, said Elisa was "a very happy and fun-loving student and a good friend to her fellow classmates."
Skinner-Bell's family cling to memories of her smile, her love of photography, and her dreams of some day going on to work with special needs students.
They hope their lawsuit will make things safer for other teens.
"We don't want any family to have to go through what we have had to -- to take someone to work in the morning and later, to come home empty-handed," said her aunt. "It's not worth it."
Bernstein helped the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans win access to the University of Michigan stadium after the U.S. Department of Justice joined in the claim that U-M wasn't complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
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