Law and ethics

The dangers of driving down Montebello Road

I co-wrote this story about a car crash involving four students at our school. We interviewed three of the sources – the two students who had driven illegally were kept anonymous, and the third student who owned the car was named. After publishing, the named source wanted anonymity, and our sources claimed we had incorrectly reported the number of people in the car. They insisted there were only two people in the car – the driver and the car’s owner. We were going to file for a police report, but learned that the police report would also say there were only two people in the car. Our sources wanted the story taken down, citing the number of people in the car as a factual inaccuracy. However, we re-listened to all the interviews to confirm that multiple sources had said there were four people in the car and that what we published reflected the content of our sources’ interviews.

We reached out to the Student Press Law Center for advice on whether it was ethical to make her anonymous after publishing, and whether we had any obligation to take down the story. Our heads team later ended up meeting with the sources and an administrator. Since the article was factually accurate, we ultimately decided to keep the story up after running one correction and offered them the opportunity to write a letter to the editors.

Published on elestoque.org on May 21, 2017
Story by Ilena Peng and Sepand Rouz
Correction 5/22/17 3:38 p.m. Junior Priyanka Sujan’s car cost around $30,000, not $20,000
“Slow down.”
Those were junior Priyanka Sujan’s last words before the crash — words that came too late, just seconds before the car hit the tree.
25 mph. 25 mph is the speed limit on Montebello Road. But sometimes, cars flash by in blurs of brushed metal driving at 50 miles an hour. 60. 70. 80. 90 mph. The scenic drive is lined with a tangle of California foliage, but at these speeds the trees are nothing more than a kaleidoscope of greens.
The three passengers all recall how the car hit the tree as they drove back down the road. The airbags are filled, the black metal crumpled against the tree’s trunk. Four passengers were present, all MVHS students. The student behind the wheel had his driver’s license, but couldn’t legally drive other students yet. The student who’d first driven them up the road couldn’t legally drive other passengers under 25 years old either.
MONDAY, MARCH 20 | 12:25 P.M.
The group joined the flow of students heading to the student parking lot during lunch. They piled into Sujan’s car, ready to drive up Montebello Road just to see the view. She’d gone up at night before, but hadn’t really seen the place fully. Thinking it’d be a fun trip, student Y drove them up the road. That day, several MVHS seniors were driving up the road as well.
There was a gorgeous view — Sujan recalls taking a picture from the top of the road. According to her, as her right leg began cramping up before the drive down, she asked if student X could drive the car. He’d driven the road before and she knew him well. She’d been in his car before and she knew he’d driven other people’s cars too. She let him take the wheel.
As they drove down, Sujan recalls that student X asked if he could mess with the car’s gears. Even so, as he was behind the wheel, she thought everything would be okay.
“Everyone thinks that they’re under control,” Sujan said.
As student X took the wheel, Sujan suggested that he slow down. According to Sujan, they were driving at around 55 or 60 mph — around 35 miles over the speed limit. But the suggestion came too late and a few seconds later, they hit a tree. Sujan had been watching the road the entire time, yet she never thought they would actually hit the tree.
“I was watching the road while this was happening, and like I saw the tree out of the corner of my eye for like a split second, but I definitely thought we were going to turn,” Sujan said. “I don’t know how, but I did not expect it to happen … I completely did not think we were going to crash.”
As smoke billowed from the car, each passenger took a bit of time to process what had just happened. Sujan’s seat was at the edge of the cliff and had the tree not been there, the car would have gone off the cliff. It’s a realization that scared both her and her parents. But as it was, student Y climbed out of the backseat. Sujan followed by climbing into the backseat and then out of the car. Student X got out of the driver’s seat.
“I just saw the airbag in front of me and I opened my eyes and looked around asking what the hell happened,” Sujan said. “And I [was] just really glad to be alive, because I knew it could have been really bad.”
Yet the real shock came when she stepped out of the car. Student X was thankful that they hadn’t been going faster, but even as it was, half the car’s engine had been crushed. Sujan began crying as she looked at the car. She began wondering what to do — and what her parents would say.
Student Y found a ride back to school, where he told the office that the others wouldn’t be returning to MVHS for the remainder of the school day. Sujan tried to fetch her phone from the wreckage but the fumes from the smoke didn’t seem safe to inhale so she abandoned her efforts. A passing driver who turned out to be an orthopedic surgeon taped up Sujan’s rapidly swelling foot.
Meanwhile, the car was still Sujan’s main concern. It’d been a gift from her parents, a reward to her and her sister for doing well on their ACTs. And since they shared the car, Sujan supposes the budget for the car, which cost about $20,000, was a bit higher than it would’ve been for a normal high school student’s car.
“It kind of sucked because I really liked that car …” Sujan said. “I didn’t really care about my injuries that much because I’ve gotten injured before, but I think the worst part was losing something you really like a lot.”
There was nothing Sujan could do now though and they sat at the side of Montebello, waiting for Sujan’s parents, and for the tow truck.
Photo used with permission of Priyanka Sujan
Afterward, Sujan’s mom took both her and student X to the hospital. The crash triggered damage from past concussions she’d had, and headaches plagued her a while. The doctors said her foot was fractured and put it in a cast. Soon, she found it wasn’t getting better. Another x-ray revealed that it was broken, resulting in the boot that Sujan donned for about five weeks.
Student X’s parents took him to a different hospital. He had a concussion and both student X and Sujan missed several days of school following the incident. And for days after, Sujan could taste the scent of the burning car in her mouth.
Student Y was thrown into the seat in front him during the crash since he didn’t have a seatbelt on at the time. Even though he didn’t miss any school because of the incident, he still hit his knee during the crash and limped around school for about two weeks.
But the repercussions were more than just physical. Student X hasn’t driven up that Montebello Road since. He can’t really explain why he won’t go in the near future, trailing off and faltering when trying to find a reason, but it’s linked to the incident. After the incident, Sujan’s parents have become more cautious too.
“When the actual accident happened they were like, ‘Oh it’s ok I am glad that you’re alive’ kind of thing, but when I got home after that they were like ‘You’re so dumb why would you do that, that was a terrible idea,’” Sujan said.
Nowadays, she’s only in the car with her sister — they can legally drive each other around because of the exceptions in the law where they can drive each other around for school related activities. More often than not, her sister is the one behind the wheel, although Sujan does drive on occasion. Since that incident, she hasn’t driven to a viewpoint. More often than not, Sujan’s driving adventures these days are all short drives, like going to a coffee shop to study.
Student X was behind the wheel of a car that didn’t belong to him — a car that was damaged beyond repair. Initially, he felt extremely guilty. Even now, he’s sorry for what happened. But he’s also learned a few lessons from the incident. Among those lessons are driving carefully, paying more attention to the road and perhaps just avoiding Montebello altogether. It’s a fun road, but it’s not the safest.
“It’s just that you should be more careful when you try to have fun,” student X said.
Student Y was one of the first few people who started the idea of taking that risky drive down Montebello. This time, however, he wasn’t the one behind the wheel. He describes Silicon Valley as a flat place — it is after all, a valley. The views and challenging roads are up in the hills. He’s driven down the road countless times. The risk of crashing is always present, yet he continues going because of the views and the opportunity to test his car’s limits — in simpler terms, he does it because it’s fun.
“I obviously don’t want to kill myself, as good as that sounds,” student Y said. “But I feel that it’s really fun … Then I mean, there’s always that chance of crashing.”
WEDNESDAY, MAY 10
Sujan and her mother met with student X and his parents on Wednesday, May 10. Student X says they’ve already figured out most of the issues concerning the insurance but they’re still trying to determine an additional value so that Sujan can replace the car. But for Sujan, there’s none of the same happiness that came with getting her old Lexus ES350. That car had been a reward — it felt like she had earned it. Regardless of what car she gets next, to her, it’ll have less meaning. It’ll feel like a replacement out of necessity — because that’s what it is.
“Now getting a new car is just like, ‘oh we’re getting you a new car your friend crashed’ so it’s not as exciting,” Sujan said. “It’s not like I worked for this car, it’s now we’re replacing this car.”
And the car has thrown a wrench in student X’s and Sujan’s friendship as well. They’re close friends, who’ve known each other since Garden Gate Elementary School. She’d been in their car before and there was never a point where she felt like she was in danger in his car. This one occasion was the only exception — and Sujan says that due to the incident that resulted, it’s highly unlikely she’ll get in a car again with him behind the wheel. It’s even more unlikely that she’ll let him sit behind the wheel of her car. But even though the level of trust in their friendship has obviously wavered, student X hopes that perhaps their relationship can continue at what he refers to as a “decent level.”
“Of course I agree [that] our trust is not at where it was before it happened but what’s happened has happened,” student X said. “And at the end of the day, I think if we can try and put it behind ourselves and try to move on, I think our relationship may improve in the future.”
That crash has since become a commonly mentioned event in a Facebook group. Junior Kamil Kisielewicz wasn’t involved with the events of that crash, but he did start a meme with a few friends concerning the accident. Although it was intended to be a joke, it led to more people actually trying the risky drive.
Although student X hasn’t driven the road since, the road’s become even more popular. With the increasing attention being drawn to Montebello Road, in part due to this incident, it’s become more of a race to see who can make it from the summit to the stop sign in the fastest time.
“This trend started when me and a bunch of friends began to meme about it in a group, and then the meme turned into people actually doing it — which quite honestly, was the dumbest thing I’ve had the honor of witnessing,” Kisielewicz said. “But sometimes, you gotta roll with the punches.”
Partly due to the meme started by Kisielewicz, the road’s gained an infamous sort of popularity among student drivers. Yet the appeal of an adrenaline rush while racing down a mountain isn’t without its consequences — and those consequences aren’t ignored by the Facebook group either.
Amidst more humorous posts, students like student Y offer tips like never turning traction control off under any circumstances to those who really do want to try their hand at navigating the road.
“It’s becoming a really cool thing even though it’s really dangerous because high schoolers have nothing better to do,” student Y said.
They’re all still recovering. Some of them physically, like Sujan and her foot. Others mentally, like student X and his newfound hesitation regarding Montebello Road. And even as the scent of the burning car fades from Sujan’s memories, they’re all figuring out life after the incident. Whether it be figuring out how to pay for a new car, hoping for a somewhat repaired friendship or posting memes in a Facebook group, the events of that day two months ago continues to impact them. And as they left Montebello Road that day, they’ve all taken away a different lesson. Sujan’s broken foot, student X’s concussion and student Y’s swollen knee serve as a testament to the consequences that could come with something as innocent as wanting a picture of the valley.
“You don’t realize how fast something can actually happen,” Sujan said.

Meme is created to mock female student’s acceptance into Caltech

Although I was not involved in reporting or writing this article, I was the main contact with SPLC regarding the article. After publishing the article and promoting it on Facebook as we typically do, the sources in the story had concerns with the way they were represented and with the threatening and offensive Facebook messages and comments they’d been receiving. Several parents also became involved as well, with some claiming that the article was defamatory. Throughout the week, I communicated by phone with the SPLC multiple times in order to assess the validity of our sources’ reasons for taking down the article and to verify that there were no legal red flags in the email responses we were sending. As an editorial team, we looked through all the recordings, met with the administration and the students in the story, and ran the corrections we felt necessary and an editor’s note. After meeting and discussing with the two named sources in the article, they decided to write a letter from the editors, which we linked out to at the bottom of our original article and as a Facebook comment on our original post.


EDM genre spurs rave culture

A source who was quoted saying that she attended raves and is aware of drug use at them wanted her name removed from the story since she was applying for colleges. Although the story does not say she does drugs, it included this quote that her mother had previously contacted the school about a year earlier, claiming I had misquoted her: “The rave scene goes hand-in-hand with using a lot of drugs so some people stay away from it for that. But the thing is that although a lot of people who rave are on drugs, they don’t really care if you’re not on drugs. I think that as long as you enjoy the music, you should be allowed to rave.” I previously contacted her about whether she felt she’d been misquoted and she never responded, so no further action was taken.

I contacted the Student Press Law Center to check whether the story could negatively impact her if it remained online, and they told us that it’d be unlikely that the quote would be held against her by future colleges and employers. We decided to keep the story up without changes.

“EDM isn’t something that you hear on the radio a lot; it’s not something that [students]talk about,” sophomore Priya Kini said. “When we talk about music you normally think of your normal pop culture artists like Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Beyonce, all that which I love too but I feel like EDM is one of those genres that is much less known.”
As our electronic gadgets get fancier, our music also becomes more technological. Sophomore Priya Kini is among the many students that have fallen under the spell of electronic dance music, with it’s futuristic sounding beats which go hand-in-hand with the rest of the technology reliant 21st century.
Many music genres are popular in our culture today but few have spawned their own little subcultures. EDM is one genre that has, creating a trend known as rave culture. The dancing part comes into play during raves, the EDM version of concerts. Raves tend to be indoors and the audience forgoes seats to stand and dance to the beat. Read more…
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