By Assistant Principal, Mary Hazlett
On April 13, 2017 LCHS 9-12 graders witnessed the aftermath of a simulated fatal car crash involving LCHS students. The simulation is part of a two-day program focused on the dangers of drinking and driving called Every 15 Minutes. In the early 1990’s when the program was first created, someone in the United States died every 15 minutes in a fatal car accident involving driving under the influence of alcohol. The program aims to educate high school students and provide them mindful opportunities to think about the choices they make and the effects those choices may have on others.
The Every 15 Minutes program preparations began 8 months earlier with the submission of an application for the grant funded by the California Highway Patrol. The CHP has worked with the program since its inception and involves participation from them as well as many other city, county and regional resources. Once the grant is approved, the high school begins contacting local law enforcement, fire departments, hospitals, ambulance companies, the county coroner, local funeral homes, florists and towing companies who all respond by giving their time and resources free of charge. The grant provides only a portion of the funding necessary to create the program and therefore an essential component includes participation and support from these local organizations. This year LCHS received donations from the La Canada Flintridge Kiwanis Association, the City of La Canada Flintridge, the LCHS Boosters, LCHS PTSA, and the LCUSD.
Two months before the simulation, 20 students are chosen to witness a progression of events and engage in conversations about them. These students represent a cross section of different social groups on campus and are expected to take their first-hand knowledge back to their social groups and share their experiences. These students are known as the “Walking Dead” and represent those who have passed away due to the choices of a drunk driver. Their parents agree to write realistic obituaries for their children. To be clear, all of the students and parents in the high school are informed and understand everything involved with the program is not real, only simulated to create thoughtful discussion.
On day one of the program, each of the 20 students were pulled out of class by a sheriff’s deputy and their obituary was read to the group. Some of these students were then made up by the theater arts students to be the “walking dead” who stand solemnly over the crash. Others were made up by professional artists to look as though they had been victims in the crash. Those students were then staged in and around the donated crash vehicles. Once the simulation was prepared and local agencies in place, the LCHS 9-12 students proceeded to the front of the school and took their seats in bleachers set up for the presentation. A 911 call describing the situation played for them and the curtain dropped. The students observed CHP arrive on scene, assess the situation, and call for back up from fire and ambulance. A helicopter flew overhead offering assistance to airlift victims to hospitals. Victims were attended to, one pronounced dead at the scene and taken away by the coroner, another taken away in critical condition in an ambulance to Verdugo Hills hospital. The “drunk driver” was given a sobriety test - which he failed, read his rights, arrested and taken away to the sheriff’s station for booking. As all of this unfolds, the students in the bleachers observing the scene were silent. As soon as the curtain dropped, the conversations ceased. Cell phones were used to take initial pictures, then were abandoned. As the site administrator responsible for the program, I assessed whether the program engage the students or if they grew bored after a few minutes, turning back to their phones. I was relieved to see that they focused on absorbing the scene and listening to the CHP officers describing the various phases of the accident. At the end of the simulation, the students were reminded that this is part one of a two-day program involving the possible consequences of choosing to drive under the influence. They were told this was not a car accident, but a crash, due directly to the choices the students made to drive while under the influence. They were then informed that they would attend an assembly the next day where we would remember the victims from the tragedy. Students then returned to class.
At this point, the 19 “walking dead” students were cleaned up and bussed to the sheriff’s department to witness their classmate who sat in a jail cell wearing a yellow jumpsuit and awaiting his trial. Prior to the arrival of his classmates, he was fingerprinted, booked, and informed about the process. The other 19 students then reunited with the driver in the briefing room. Next the CHP Every 15 Minutes supervisor led a discussion on drunk driving and engaged in discussion for an hour. The drunk driver was taken by sheriff’s vehicles to the Glendale Court house where a simulated trial was pre-arranged. Prosecuting and defending attorneys, a judge, clerk, bailiff, etc., all donated their time to create a realistic court scene. The defendant was brought in and the 19 students observed the exchange from the galley. After the driver was sentenced, the “scene” ended. The judge, attorneys, clerks and bailiff engaged in a discussion with the whole group on related experiences and consequences from choices like this.
Next the group was bussed together to Forest Lawn in Glendale where funeral home directors explained what the families of the victims would experience, such as choosing between burial or cremation; what type of casket or urn; how much these decisions cost, and the process when one is cremated? The students were encouraged to ask questions and learn from the personal experiences of the funeral directors. Especially meaningful were the stories about helping families who have experienced the death of loved ones due to drunk driving accidents.
The 20 students were then taken to dinner where they could share and recharge. After dinner they were bussed to a hotel where an evening of mandated activities and a lecture were scheduled. A representative from MADD, Mother’s Against Drunk Driving, volunteered to speak to the students and offer his story. His sister had been killed a few years ago as a passenger in Burbank’s worst drunk driving related car crash in history. The last activity of the evening was for them to write a good bye letter to someone they lost because they were killed in a car crash.
The next morning, the 20 students were brought back to the school where a simulated funeral was created. 20 large pictures of the students were displayed on easels for the LCHS students to see as they entered the gym. A floral laden coffin was brought in carried by teachers serving as pall bearers. The students were told the coffin represented the loss of their classmates yesterday. Then a video was shown depicting the events of the last 24 hours. It began with a scene from a party where the students chose to drink, followed by the activities in the two cars, one filled with party goers, the other with sober innocent victims. Then the crash scene they observed was concisely replayed, followed by what they didn’t see including the drunk driver getting booked and jailed and the resulting trial. Following the video a few of the 20 students volunteered to read their good-bye letters to the assembled student body. The final part of the assembly was dedicated to the young man’s story from MADD. Beautiful pictures of his sister were shown on the big screens as he shared his family’s loss. Our students were, as always, extremely respectful throughout the assembly. Some even stayed after to shake his hand and thank him for taking the time to help us understand the simulation from a personal, true-life perspective.
This program is structured to create many opportunities for students to ponder and discuss ideas. Students were repeatedly informed that their counselors were available to talk about anything the program brought up now, next week, or anytime in the future.
In order to provide parents with background on the program and to prepare them for the family discussions that might result, an informative parent night was offered on the Wednesday before the simulation at the LCHS Auditorium. After a summary of the events of the program, a panel of experts shared suggestions and provided concrete examples of choices and resulting consequences which they see occurring in La Canada. The panel included a USC Verdugo Hills emergency room doctor who shared what she sees students engaged in at local parties. Local psychiatrists, counselors and therapists discussed ways to talk to teens, how to give them structure and responsibilities, as well as advice involving growing independence. The LCF Community Prevention Council (CPC) provided information on how to make your home a “Safe Home” and pledge to the community that drugs and alcohol will not be served to minors in your home and how to find others who share the same commitment. Law enforcement, the CPC and LCHS counselors provided a summary of resources. These are available at the high school from the counseling department. The manager of the regional MADD organization presented and provided additional resources surrounding teen drinking. Parents and guardians then asked questions of the panel members.
The Every 15 Minutes Program originated from a goal to encourage teens not to drink and drive. Even with new resources such as Uber, students still choose to get behind the wheel when they shouldn’t. Students and parents have since shared with me that this program sparked deeper conversations not only on drinking and driving, but also around choices involving drugs as well as texting while driving. La Canada High School and the La Canada Unified School District is grateful to everyone involved in making this meaningful program available to our students.