Janae Cook started high school at Liberty Christian School on Monday but something, or rather someone, was missing.
Her best friend, Emma “Tita” Shaffer, was supposed to be there. The two should’ve been walking the halls together on the way to first period. They should’ve been practicing their cheers together for next week’s football game against Melissa.
But Tita hasn’t been there for two years now. The 12-year-old and her 41-year-old mother Emma, along with 26-year-old Ashley Morgan and her 4-year-old daughter Lorelei, died in a head-on car crash in April 2016 in the 8000 block of Fort Worth Drive. Investigators believe Morgan was texting at the time of the collision.
“It’s left a void,” said Janae’s mother, Heather, who also friends with Emma Shaffer. “You look around and go, ‘Where are they?’ They should be here.”
Janae is working to channel that emotion into change. She promoted a distracted driving awareness campaign called “Text Free for Tita” when she competed this summer at the Royal International Miss Role Model pageant. To her surprise, Janae walked away with the crown and a new global audience for her cause.
“What matters the most to me is that the life you save [when you don’t text while driving] could be your own,” the 14-year-old said. “Your family and friends won’t go through the pain of losing you.”
Janae met Tita when she transferred to Liberty Christian in the first grade. When she walked through the door of her new classroom, a bouncy blond girl nicknamed Tita ran up and gave her a hug.
“You look like my sister,” Tita said.
“Do you even have a sister?” Janae asked.
“No,” Tita responded, “but we look a lot alike.”
The pair became fast friends and soon were joined at the hip. They would make up cheers in Janae’s bedroom and jump on the trampoline. Strangers would confuse them wherever they went. Once the mothers began bonding, the Shaffers started coming to Cook family functions.
“Janae is more on the serious side, and Tita brought this silliness out of her that I had never seen before,” Heather Cook said. “And Emma, she was friends with everyone. If she didn’t know you, she was going to know you within seconds.”
On the last day they saw each other, the girls went to a Friday night Bible study together. When Emma came to pick up Tita, Janae yelled across the driveway, “Bye, Tita! Love you! See you Monday!”
Monday never came for Tita.
That Sunday, Janae woke up and uncharacteristically stared at the ceiling instead of her phone.
“There was something in my heart that told me not to look at my phone,” she said.
Her father came into her room and said they needed to talk. She saw her mom crying in the hallway. She perched on the living room couch and rested her head on the coffee table as her dad told her about the accident.
“I just fell to the floor,” Janae said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Church later that day was a blur. School felt like a daze. When she returned to class on Tuesday, Janae spent most of her time wiping away tears in a bathroom stall.
“I didn’t even know you could cry that much,” she said. “Everything kept running through my head.”
Eventually, Janae’s life recalibrated and she found a new normal. She had been participating for a few years in the Royal International Miss Role Model pageants, in which contestants win based on community service and the presentation of a social platform. Janae’s coach suggested she share her story about Tita.
The family got to work putting together a cause that discouraged distracted driving.
They ordered keychains that read “Text Free for Tita” and handed them out in July at the international pageant in Florida. Janae put together a scrapbook and sat through several interviews with the judges. By the time of the crowning, Janae had battled a severe illness for several days and was ready for the whole thing to be over.
The announcer called the names of the runners-up. When Janae didn’t hear her own name called, she thought there had been a mistake of Steve Harvey proportions. Then someone affixed the winner’s crown on top of her head.
“My friend came up to me and asked if I felt any better,” Janae said. “I said, ‘No, I feel like I’m about to throw up.’ I was so nervous and then there was this wave of relief and then the sick feeling came back.”
But Janae did feel better afterward. She realized that her “sister queens” — some from the states and others from countries like South Africa and Australia — would bring Tita’s story back home and promote her cause.
The Cooks are far from the only family to feel the effects of distracted driving.
Crash data from the Texas Department of Transportation shows that cellphone usage led to 7,878 collisions in 2016. Denton County drivers contributed to 166 of those crashes.
The city of Denton passed an ordinance in June 2017 that prohibits the use of any handheld device while driving, even if making a phone call. Denton police spokesman Bryan Cose said officers have issued 627 citations since the ban went into effect.
State legislators passed a law in September 2017 that outlaws texting on any Texas road. Cose said Denton officers have issued eight tickets related to that offense since the law went into effect.
“These [laws] are fairly new, so there’s still an adjustment period for people to understand how dangerous it is,” Cose said.
But declining crash numbers could be an effect of the bans.
TxDOT data from 2017 shows collisions related to cellphone use dropped to 5,676, with 149 recorded in Denton County. So far this year, Texas drivers on their phones have been in 2,995 crashes. Seventy-two were in county limits.
James Shaffer, Emma’s husband and Tita’s father, worked to gather petition signatures for a statewide ban and spoke to lawmakers in Austin during the last legislative session. He said he’s proud of what Janae is doing to promote awareness, but notes that the state law needs to be expanded.
“I feel like the texting ban was a step in the right direction,” Shaffer said. “A hands-free law is the ultimate goal. That’s what’s needed.”
But Shaffer also knows although the law could potentially save the lives of thousands of people, it won’t make life normal again for him and his sons.
“It’s almost like our lives are the same, but we’re in a parallel universe,” he said. “The school year brings a constant reminder every time. You see these kids and see how big they’ve gotten. You always wondering what [Tita] would be like now. You’ll never see that because of what happened on one day.”