Danville Express

Living - April 13, 2007

The 411: Does faking deaths work?

by Katharine O'Hara

Every 15 Minutes, a program that gleans its name from a shocking statistic that a person is killed in an alcohol-related incident every 15 minutes, was presented at San Ramon Valley High School on March 27-28 and is scheduled to occur at Monte Vista on May 22-23. The program, which was first presented in California in 1995, is designed to demonstrate the devastating effects of driving drunk, through realistic simulation, in order to influence the thoughts and choices of teens that are often faced with the tempting decision to drink and drive. Every 15 Minutes incorporates a simulated car crash involving students from the school and the removal of additional students from classes every 15 minutes who have been "killed" in an alcohol-related incident.

On that Tuesday morning at SRVHS, all 2,000-plus students were escorted out to the football field, not knowing what to expect of this bizarre experience. The day's events consisted of a simulated car crash involving seven familiar students, complete with mangled cars, fake blood, broken glass, and much tears and shrieking. The dramatic scene entailed the arrival of multiple police cars, ambulances and a fire truck, the landing of a helicopter from John Muir sent to take injured passengers to the hospital, the appearance of the coroner and the parents of one of the deceased students who were asked to identify their son's body, and finally, alcohol testing of the driver who caused the make-believe accident.

The removal of additional students (every 15 minutes) from classes accompanied by an obituary read over the loudspeaker ensued, and the program culminated with a highly emotional mock memorial the following day.

The disturbing events proved extremely effective for many students on campus.

"The program really hit a lot of people the day of the accident," said Megan Condie, a junior and one of the passengers who was killed in the staged crash. "I received so many letters from people telling me how my death impacted them. I really think it brought people back to reality."

However, for as many who were positively affected by the powerful program, it seems from talking to students around campus, there were just as many who mocked the activities and found them an inefficient expenditure of time and resources.

"The effectiveness of the program is all based upon what a student's attitude is toward it. It's like any other lesson; if a student isn't open to hearing it, it falls on deaf ears," remarked Don Busboom, a teacher who inspiringly opened and closed the Every 15 Minutes mock memorial service.

"There are obviously some people where it's going to take an actual event to get them to change, but the experience was worth it even if it only affected one person," said Kiley McInroy, a junior who was involved, but uninjured, in the simulated crash. "One saved life is worth all of the money and planning put into the program." The costs amounted to more than $15,000.

"You can't put a price on one life," McInroy added.

Though the program is an effective way of bringing awareness to the impact of the choice to drink and drive, I found that faking the deaths of my fellow students was a rather bizarre concept, and that the simulation might have bordered on manipulating students' feelings. However, Busboom points out that the efficacy of the program lies in this very fact.

"The program is so powerful because it creates a strong, real emotional response using an experience that's not real," he said.

Students are able to view firsthand how their choices affect an entire community, without having to face the risk that accompanies a real incident.

Though there was this great arousal of strong emotions among students, I did not feel there was enough discussion of these feelings for students to gain closure or experience the maximum effect of the program. Only in one of my classes did the teacher suggest an optional free write for those who wished to reflect about their Every 15 Minutes experience, let alone even allow for discussion of feelings or response to the events.

In addition, many teachers on campus understandably expressed to their students that they were irritated by the repeated disruption the program caused their class, which also took away from the students' experience. If all of the adults (and role models) on campus are not onboard with the program, it is hardly realistic to expect students, especially those hesitant to openly express emotion, to be enthusiastic or comfortable with exhibiting an emotional response.

Regardless of these few objections, the Every 15 Minutes program was highly effective in portraying - if only to one, 100, or 1,000 students - the catastrophic consequences that can result from a split-second decision to drink and drive. The efforts on behalf of the entire community in order to protect and hopefully save the lives of local teens were remarkable, and greatly appreciated by those apart of the powerful program.

The 411 offers information and insight on the teen scene by Katharine O'Hara, a junior at San Ramon Valley High School who spends her free time going to concerts, enjoying her friends, and playing the piano. E-mail her at ohara5@comcast.net.

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