Remembering Jennifer

By Justin Boron

Susan Wilson-Tucker talks at length about the way she transformed her daughter's death into a political cause that re-wrote the state DUI law.

But when she recalls the moment an officer told her, "you've lost your daughter," she can only choke out tears.

It was 10 years ago today when her daughter and an acquaintance, who was reportedly high on inhalants, sped across the median of Ga. Highway 85 and were struck broadside by an oncoming truck.

Jennifer Nicole Wilson was killed, and the driver survived.

The 1994 accident spurred activism against inhalant use, which at the time, had only a faint mention in drug education and enforcement programs.

A decade later, much of the concern about inhalants has faded;

the fatal crash's impact on the community, subdued by time, Wilson-Tucker said.

"I don't hear anything about inhalants now, it's still something we need to talk about," she said, refusing to let her daughter's sacrifice be victim to the community's short memory.

Before Jennifer's death, there was little to no information on the subject of inhalant use.

Many people didn't take inhalant abuse seriously, Wilson-Tucker said.

"I would have parents laugh saying you must be kidding," she said.

Wilson-Tucker eventually got inhalant education included in Clayton County drug education programs.

Now, students receive information about the inhalants throughout their career in school, said Charles White, the spokesperson for the Clayton County school system.

Wilson's death also produced a landmark example for the insufficiency of the state's DUI laws, said Bob Keller, the Clayton County district attorney, who prosecuted the driver of the car.

Keller said he could not prosecute the driver for DUI. Instead, he was forced to use a reckless driving charge to get a vehicular manslaughter conviction, bringing less stringent penalties.

"There was a void in the DUI law at the time," he said.

Joining forces with Wilson-Tucker, Keller worked toward legislation to fill the gap in the law.

State Senate Bill 560, called Jennifer's Bill, amended the law to include "the intentional influence of any glue, aerosol, or other toxic vapor."

"You look back in your professional career and feel some success or accomplishment," Keller said. "Now, there is a consequence to using inhalants and driving a car."

State Sen. Terrell Starr, who represents Clayton County, also helped push for the legislation.

"It made an impact on all of us that wrote the legislation," he said. "I appreciated Susan Wilson-Tucker's efforts and think it has produced something meaningful."

Jennifer's death caused people to take inhalants seriously as a drug for the first time in Clayton County.

But the efforts to curb inhalant use have not produced long-term results, according to recent studies.

Abuse of substances like correctional fluid, cleaning products, and aerosol cans have remained prevalent, according to the Partnership for a Drug Free America.

Sixteen-percent of 8th graders have tried inhalants, almost as many as have tried marijuana.

Inhalant use has increased in middle school students as whole by up to 44 percent, according to the national drug prevention group.

Awareness of their danger also appears to be dampened.

Fewer than one out of 20 parents believe their children may have ever abused inhalants, the Partnership for Drug Free America said.

"More and more parents do not think their kids are using inhalants," said Harvey Weiss, the director of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition.

"As other drugs become popular in public media, parents tend to talk to their kids less about inhalants," he said.

One of the problems driving inhalant use is their legal status, which makes their illegal use difficult to enforce and prosecute, Keller said.

In Clayton County schools, the matter is still a gray area, White said.

Student Resource Officers deal with it on a case-by-case basis as part of the school system's drug policy, he said.

Complacency also plays a role in the resurgent use of inhalants, Weiss said.

When tragedy becomes separated from inhalant use, the education programs and enforcement tend to wane, he said.

"That's the unfortunate truth," Weiss said. "The community isn't aware of the problem until there is a tragedy."

With inhalant use, death can strike suddenly, he said.

"I talk to 100 to 125 parents a year who have lost a child," Weiss said.

Many deaths stem from sudden sniffing death syndrome. The condition causes a heart attack in someone who is under the influence of inhalants and can occur the first time a person uses, he said.

Although community concern has dipped in recent years, Wilson-Tucker said she will not give up on what she owes her daughter.

"Jennifer was just the most happy, bubbly person," she said. "I have this mission for her."