The current senior class at Milton Academy is the last one with personal ties to Merritt Levitan, who was killed at 18 by a distracted driver in 2013 only a month after graduating from the school.
After Levitan’s death, students created the TextLess Live More campaign to discourage excessive cellphone use as a way to honor their friend and try to ensure that fewer people will meet her fate.
The current seniors were still in middle school when Levitan died, but were in the same grade as her younger brother, Joe. Now on the verge of graduation, they’re working to make certain the grades below them continue to spread the message not just within the confines of their school, but beyond. Last month, the campaign said it was partnering with Students Against Destructive Decisions, a Marlborough nonprofit with chapters nationwide, to reach a larger audience.
“This is a problem that affects more than just one family,’’ said Natalie Wamester, a Milton senior on the TextLess Live More board. “This is a message that’s strong enough to carry.”
The digital generation has technology at its fingertips every minute of every day. But taking their cellphone usage behind the wheel can have deadly consequences. Each day in the United States, nine people are killed and over 1,000 injured in crashes because of distracted driving, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At Milton Academy, TextLess Live More distributes light blue rubber bracelets that say “TextLess Live More for Merritt” to fellow students. On the first of each month, students pledge to spend a day from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. away from their phones. It’s a step toward encouraging them to monitor their daily phone usage.
Outside Milton, TextLess Live More helps other high schools and colleges create their own distracted-driving campaigns by sending tool kits and setting up presentations to explain their mission. The group has worked with schools in Massachusetts as well as Tennessee, California, Texas, and more. By partnering with SADD, it has a chance to connect with that group’s nearly 10,000 chapters in all 50 states.
“We share and support SADD’s mission to empower young people to make good decisions, especially behind the wheel,” said Rich Levitan Merritt’s father and TextLess Live More’s chief executive. “As we approach five years since our loss, TextLess Live More is honored and delighted to work with SADD to end distracted driving and make driving safe for everyone.”
As the Milton group grew, it was inundated with requests from other communities for help in starting local initiatives. It began offering free campaign tool kits and eventually created an advisory board of parents and graduates to help better spread the message. It was this board that reached out to SADD and worked out the partnership.
“What appealed to SADD was that our work was not only student-initiated, but that it makes peer-to-peer campaigning a priority,” said Anna Levitan, Merritt’s mother and an advisory board member. “Students have a role in every step of this process.”
The Milton group is working with SADD to incorporate its tool kit and mission plan into SADD’s work. Members of the board and a handful of Milton students went to a SADD conference in Washington, D.C., and participated in a live Facebook session during which they spoke about their work to SADD members watching nationwide.
SADD also assigned Julie Kettner, its director of communications, to work with the Milton group as it presented its campaign to SADD leaders nationwide.
At Milton Academy, the group keeps pushing students to be mindful of their cellphone use.
In addition to the bracelets and TextLess Mondays, the group holds schoolwide meetings once a month at which no cellphones are allowed. It also organizes an annual text-free tennis tournament in honor of Merritt, who was the captain of the school’s tennis team.
Isabel Greenberg, a senior at the school, said being on the student board has made her more aware of the ways she relies on her phone.
“I find myself being on my phone more than I need to be,” said Greenberg. “I’m more aware that there’s no substance to it. I could be doing something else that betters my day in a way that makes me happier than just being on my phone. I’m proud to be part making people realize that there’s more out there to pay attention to than their phone.”
“This movement is inspired by our loss,’’ said Anna Levitan, “but our legacy rises above it and touches everyone. It’s important people know that a movement like this started right here.
“Massachusetts should know that their students started it,’’ she said. “Big change is coming and we are the silent rumble.”
Zipporah Osei can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org