Ashley Ridge DUI lesson becomes unruly

“What I do isn't easy. It's emotionally exhausting," Sarah Panzau said.

SUMMERVILLE — Sarah Panzau has traveled the country telling teenagers about her near-fatal decision 10 years ago to drink and drive.

She speaks of a blood alcohol content nearly four times the legal limit and of the 40 painful surgeries to reconstruct her scarred body.

But at Ashley Ridge High School this week, some students saw her story more as a joke than serious.

The professional speaker hired by brewer Anheuser-Busch said she was so thrown off by chatter and disruptive conduct by some members of the school’s junior class that she gave up talking and walked off during her 45-minute appearance Thursday.

“I felt the entire time I was trying to compete with certain students in the audience,” said Panzau, who put her microphone on “full blast” and still couldn’t overcome the audience noise.

While about 80 percent of the 600 or so students in the auditorium wanted to hear her story, she estimated about 20 percent were intentionally unruly, something she pegged to a lack of faculty presence.

“What I do isn’t easy. It’s emotionally exhausting,” she said of telling the students her account.

The last of the disruptions came when someone mocked her appearance.

Panzau speaks while wearing shorts and a tank-top shirt, something she does to show off her severed left arm, which was cut off above the elbow. She also has multiple scars.

Her outfit reportedly drew at least one rude comment, which sparked laughter, she said.

Though she doesn’t know exactly what was said, it was enough to end her talk. “I said, ‘This is my life, and there’s nothing funny about it.’?”

Dorchester District 2 schools spokeswoman Pat Raynor confirmed a small number of students in the school auditorium were deemed disruptive during the address, with one male student reported to have directed a comment toward Panzau that “was out of line.”

That student is facing disciplinary action but because of student privacy considerations Raynor said she could not provide details. She did not know what the comment was.

Panzau’s visit was part of a multi-stop tour of high schools in the Charleston area sponsored by local Anheuser-Busch distributor Pearlstine’s. Goose Creek and West Ashley high schools were also on the itinerary.

Panzau, 30, was horribly injured Aug. 23, 2003. As a 21-year-old college volleyball athlete, she got behind the wheel after a night of partying with friends. Her message now is “it’s just not worth it.”

State DUI accident records show South Carolina teenagers could greatly benefit from her warnings. In 2010, state and local law enforcement responded to 357 alcohol-impaired driving fatalities; at least 38 of them involved drivers, passengers or pedestrians who were under 21.

That’s a better than 10 percent share of DUI deaths involving someone who cannot legally consume alcohol in the state.

While Panzau faced the partial disruption at Ashley Ridge, she and others praised the conduct of many other students who wanted to hear her message.

“A lot of the students were deeply offended and generally upset and wanted to apologize on behalf of the whole class,” said Holly Shinn, who works with Pearlstine Distributors and who set up Panzau’s trip to Charleston.

Panzau also had high words of praise for the students who were respectful and thanked her afterward. She has no ill-will toward Ashley Ridge.

“Eighty percent of that entire junior class was hanging on to every word I had to say,” she said. “That’s what I will remember.”

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.