WOONSOCKET — When three students at Woonsocket High School were killed in a three-vehicle collision at an intersection east of town, their fellow schoolmates were determined to make sure such a tragedy would not occur again.
Their efforts were successful, with Gov. Kristi Noem crediting them with inspiring a change that will add additional traffic controls to the intersection of Highway 37 and Highway 34 east of the community. The process to upgrade the intersection was already underway Monday morning.
The three students killed in the crash, Jordan Klich, 15; Kristian Kesary, 14; and Dylan Klich, 14, died as a result of the collision. The driver of the car, another student at Woonsocket Public School, sustained serious, non-life threatening injuries.
The South Dakota Department of Public Safety said the 2000 Oldsmobile Alero the four teens were in was heading eastbound on South Dakota Highway 34 preparing to turn north onto Highway 37. The vehicle collided with a 2005 Chevrolet Trailblazer that was westbound on Highway 34. The Alero spun around and collided with a 2011 Chevrolet Impala that was at the stop sign on Highway 37. The driver of the Trailblazer was also hospitalized.
Members of the student council at Woonsocket High School felt they needed to do something about the intersection, which did not have stop signs for east or west bound traffic.
“Monday morning (after the crash) was a rough time for all of us," said Carter Linke, a member of the student council. "I thought I’d get away from the classroom and started by reaching out to the South Dakota Department of Public Safety, and they told me to get a hold of the South Dakota Department of Transportation."
The council made a request for crash statistics for the intersection, and learned that there had been 11 collisions, including the one that claimed the three Woonsocket students, at the location over the past 15 years.
“We definitely decided that this was something that we could get done, and with the statistics provided, we were able to really dig into that,” Linke said.
The students knew the intersection could be dangerous, even before they started their research or the Sept. 14 crash.
“A lot of us drive along that intersection every day, because we share sports with Sanborn Central,” said Dilyn Brooks, a member of the student council.
The council set out to create a presentation for state officials as a way to petition for change at the intersection. The group utilized drones from the school’s aviation class to take footage of the intersection as part of the presentation and printed large cards to help officials see the issue.
The group also petitioned state legislators to help get their message to top officials. Linke said the council contacted District 8 Sen. Jordan Youngberg and District 20 Sen. Joshua Klumb to help expedite delivery of their message to Noem and state-level officials.
“We let them know that we were looking into doing this and would like to get it done,” Linke said. “And then Thursday afternoon after the funeral, we got a phone call that it happened.”
Noem heard the appeal of the students and, not waiting for their presentation, took immediate action to change traffic control at the troubled intersection.
“Keeping South Dakota safe is our number one priority,” Noem said in a press release. “Intersection safety is part of our Strategic Highway Safety Plan, and I will continue to work with the DOT to identify areas of the state where enhancements to rural intersections can be made. After assessing this intersection in Sanborn County, it was clear that improvements needed to happen. Installing this additional traffic measure will better protect our kids, our communities and everyone on the road.”
Crews were in the process Monday morning of installing stop signs with flashing red lights on Highway 34 both eastbound and westbound at the intersection with Highway 37. Advanced warning signs, rumble strips and painted stop bars will also be installed to warn drivers of the upcoming stop condition.
That was welcome news to the student council.
“It made me, personally, immediately smile,” said Megan Linke, president of the student council.
Brooke Doering, a member of the council, said it was wonderful to see change finally come to the intersection.
“People have been trying to get that intersection changed for many, many years. And it just feels good knowing we made that happen,” said Doering.
Carter Linke said the response from community members was immediate.
“Right after the news came out I had calls and texts from people who have never texted me before, just telling me how proud they were and how supportive they were,” he said. “The response to this finally happening was tremendous. It was an uplifting source of joy for our community.”
While changes are coming at the state level already, the council members still plan to make their presentation to the DOT on Wednesday in Pierre, where they will be accompanied by about 115 students from grades 7-12 from Woonsocket, as well as staff and faculty from the school in support.
While the students are happy about the changes being made, they plan to ask the DOT to consider even more.
“I know that Gov. Noem and the DOT have figured out something they want to do, but in the long-term we think there are some other things that they can add in there that can make it safer for all of us,” Linke said.
The students are holding the memory of their classmates close with them as they take part in this process. The students noted that no amount of signage at the intersection will bring back their friends, and noted Jordan Klich, one of the students killed in the crash, was a fellow student council member and all three were conscientious students.
“Jordan was on student council, and this would have been something he would have been very supportive of. He was always the first person to support something or to make some comment and chip in,” Linke said. “I think this was a good thing for him and those boys that we got that changed.”
The group said they hope the work they’re doing can inspire others to take action in the arena of public safety. With the help of their fellow students, staff at the school and the community as a whole, they can affect change for the better.
“Constantly reach out to your local legislators. That’s what they’re there for. And let them know that this is a problem so they can hopefully use their platform to really continue your efforts,” Linke said. “I know it can be hard for people like us to get our point across, but when a whole community is behind it, things get done.”
Noem agreed that the work of the student council at Woonsocket Public School will hopefully save lives in the future.
“As a mom, I can’t even begin to comprehend the tragedy that happened (Sept. 14). Bryon and I will continue to pray for this community as they grieve this loss,” Noem said in the statement. “I’m thankful the students at Woonsocket High School reached out to the state and have taken action to initiate this change. Through this, I hope they understand that their voice can make a difference and impact policy.”