NORTH PORT — North Port High School students lined up in the school’s parking lot Monday to pick up their prize bags from Project Graduation volunteers.

Any other year, graduating seniors would enjoy their baccalaureate service and awards ceremonies, and then the night-long Project Graduation celebration after their graduation ceremony. But the Class of 2020 didn’t get those things because of COVID-19.

Then, it got worse for the Class of 2020.

Over the weekend, students, parents and school employees learned they had lost one of the class members to a car crash in Englewood. An 18-year-old died when the car he was driving hit a tree. Two other teens were injured.

“The mood was sad on Monday after learning a North Port High School student died,” said Laurie File, of North Port Drug Free Youth and longtime Project Graduation volunteer.

“Project Graduation is designed to give graduates a safe place to gather and celebrate, eat and win prizes after graduation,” she said. “Unfortunately that didn’t happen this year.”

“We really wanted seniors to still have the prizes we have been collecting all year,” File said. “We will have more prizes for graduates the day before graduation in July. We just don’t know what they will look like yet.”

File spent last week and Monday handing out prizes for Project Graduation at North Port High School, as a consolation, since they had to cancel the yearly all-night lock-in at the North Port Boys & Girls Club after the traditional graduation ceremony.

File said she hopes students in mourning will seek help at the school.

“Every school now has a mental health counselor,” File said. “Students are told they can talk to them. If they are hurting, they should take advantage of that resource. It’s important for them to get help and talk about their feelings.”

North Port High School officials made a recorded call Sunday to students and their families, letting them know one of their class members had died and that grief counselors were available to students on campus beginning Monday.

The school will continue to make counselors available via phone or Zoom video conference, by request, to assistant principal Shannon Fusco.

According to the Florida Highway Patrol report, the crash occurred after 1 a.m. Sunday on Manasota Key Road in Englewood. The 18-year-old was driving south on the Sarasota County portion of the road, and trying to negotiate a curve to the right, the FHP reported.

The car left the road and slammed into some trees. The driver was killed.

Two passengers in the car, a 17-year-old female and an 18-year-old male, both from North Port, were injured, the report states.

The Englewood Area Fire Control District received the call at 1:13 a.m. Sunday. The district’s battalion chief, three fire engines and three ambulances went immediately to the scene.

An ambulance crew took one of the teens to Sarasota Memorial Hospital, and the other refused treatment, according to Englewood Fire Chief Kevin Easton.

“It’s a very unfortunate event,” Easton said of the crash.

The Florida Highway Patrol did not release any of the names of the teens, and had no update on the passengers’ condition Monday afternoon. The full crash report is expected to be available within seven to 10 days, according to FHP.

Sun writer Steve Reilly contributed to this story.


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