Two-day program shows dangers of drinking and driving

April 4, 2008 — by Michael Chen and Jocelyn Ye

Grim Reaper

This story was originally published in the April 4 edition of The Saratoga Falcon

As blood trickled down the hood of a crushed car, senior Andy Capek desperately shook senior Pete Florence’s body, but with no avail. Seconds later, Capek trembled and sank to the ground, covering his face with his hands. A police officer slowly approached him while firefighters surveyed the scene and the piercing wails of ambulances grew steadily louder.

Nearby, 18 students with paled faces stoically observed efforts to rescue unconscious victims from the car. A little farther, 1,300 students looked on.

The simulated accident was part of the “Every Fifteen Minutes” (EFM) program. It is named for a statistic from the 1990s when the U.S. experienced a fatal alcohol-related traffic collision every 15 minutes, the two-day event began March 25 and sought to discourage students from drunk driving.
This year, the students that were chosen to act as occupants of the cars that crashed during the “accident” included Capek, Florence and seniors Nikhil Sheel and Katie Low, who was unable to participate in the simulation and was replaced with a member of the local fire department.
Eighteen sophomores, juniors and seniors were also chosen to be “living dead,” representing the unnamed individuals who die in alcohol-related collisions across the nation.

“We all met in June to start planning the event,” said sophomore Maddy Renalds, a member of the Events Commission, which was in charge of organizing much of the event and selected students to participate. “When we were picking people, we really took everyone into account and thought about who would be good for the event. It really came down to who we thought would have a major effect on the community.”
The bell schedule was modified on March 25 and 26 to include a 75-minute assembly for the entire school. On the first day, the living dead were taken from their classes by a grim reaper. Each student’s belongings were gathered and a black rose was set on his/her desk in the classroom. A police officer then read the student’s obituary to the class. Obituaries were also posted on the cafeteria windows and a tombstone planted into the grass in the quad.

“We didn’t really know what was going on at first,” said junior Vicky Chang. “When we finally realized why there was a grim reaper in the classroom, the atmosphere completely changed.”

After second period, all students were ushered to the football field bleachers, where they watched the recreation of the car accident complete with medical response workers, police officers and firefighters. The individuals involved in the crash were separated for the next step of the simulation; Capek to the local jail, Florence to the morgue and Sheel to the hospital. Participants attended an overnight retreat at a nunnery in the Santa Cruz mountains, where they heard the firsthand story of a man who was paralyzed for life as a result of drunk driving.

“It was eye-opening hearing from someone who was paralyzed from the neck down,” said senior Nikhil Sheel. “Seeing how it affected his life really made me think about everything that I’ve ever done.”

The second day of EFM included an emotional mock funeral in the school’s gym for all the participants. Keynote speaker Judy Peckler, a Los Gatos month whose husband and two children were killed by a drunk driven in 1997, spoke of how drunk driving affected her life and changed it forever. With brief video clips and interludes from the orchestra and chamber choir, four letters were read aloud from peers and parents to the “dead” students and two letters were read by the participants themselves.

“It was just such an emotional day,” said Chang. “Having our own peers talk to us so sincerely made us think about our own lives and relationships with our families. I really think that it touched everyone in some way.”

Although the students who were involved as living dead were notified a few weeks in advance to ensure their participation, EFM was kept top-secret from its initiation last year to the day of the event itself.

“The fact that the event was unannounced was part of what made it so effective,” said Renalds. “When something as serious as a drunk-driving accident occurs, it’s always so sudden. Nobody knows when something devastating like that will happen and the shock is what moves people.”

The Events Commission worked closely with a large group of parent volunteers, students and the local fire, sheriff and medical departments while organizing the event.

“[EFM is] one of those high-risk events that takes tremendous planning and resources, and you never know what the outcome may be,” said assistant principal Karen Hyde. “In my dreams, it opened doors and made kids think. For a moment, there’s always that effect on most people.”