More than 650 students and parents gathered in a circle on March 5 on the intersection of Wedgeworth and Countrywood Ave., giving a wide berth to the smoking wreckage of cars in the center. Although the weather was warm, many feel chills down their spine as the grim reaper appearedto collect the latest victims of a drunk-driving accident.
It’s all part of a distracted driving simulation provided by Every 15 Minutes — a two-day car crash and memorial service sponsored partially by the California Office of Traffic Safety grant.
The program aims to challenge high school juniors and seniors about drinking, driving and mature decision making.
Wilson High School has previously undergone this program every two years. However, it would be another four years and many lunch hours before Wilson took on the program once more.
Students got their first taste of Every 15 Minutes when LA County Sheriffs and California Highway Patrol officers walked into the classrooms of the “living dead” students, read a short eulogy to the classroom and put a rose on their desk.
It was meant to replicate the haunting feeling of emptiness accompanying the death of a classmate. However, seeing such an event, even as a simulation, can be traumatizing to students.
“People have mixed emotions about what they see. We can’t ever predict people’s reactions,” said English teacher Monica Yep.
Project organizer, Ken Laymen, has 30 years with the Sheriff’s Department under his belt. He has seen numerous traffic accidents yet resolves to never give up on educating the next generation on responsibility and caution.
“When something does happen like this in school, it’s not as simple as one person passing away. It’s an echo effect, and all the students have to deal with it,” Layman said. “Undergoing the grief process is important. We try to teach these kids that things like this do happen in life and how to deal with them.”
Certainly, the blaring sirens echoing the wails of wounded students had a deep impact on the actors as well as the audience.
Senior Demi Corella played the role of a dead victim bleeding out on the hood of the crashed car. After being covered soberly with a tarp, Corella reflects on her experience.
“It felt very surreal, I was scared and felt really anxious knowing that this is what really happens to people,” Corella said. “It was heartbreaking to find out how often these deaths [occur].”
Coffins accompanied by a hearse parked in front of the gym were highlights of the memorial service on the program’s second day. Students and parents sat in silence as “victims” read their farewell letters to their friends and family.
Meanwhile, upperclassmen who participated in the staged accident, as well as those who played the “living dead,” were transported to the local Pacific Palms Resort for an overnight student retreat.
Participants were able to pick out their own coffins during their visit to the local morgue and funeral home.
Senior Lialani Johnson played the role of one of the “living dead” and notes that the simulation was an eye-opening experience.
“Picking my own coffin was hard because not only do you want to find the perfect color or design for you, but they [also] cost thousands of dollars alone,” Johnson said. “Being away from my friends and family was very difficult because I kept thinking about their safety on the road and about their pains if we were actually dead.”
As part of the audience, senior Sandy Su believes that the simulation achieved its goal of making a deep impact on the student body.
“I felt that it was very informative and that we should take more precautions in the decisions that we make,” Su said. “More than anything I learned not to drink and drive.”
Yep said she has seen the results of participating in the Every 15 Minutes program firsthand.
“I believe in this program. Because of statistics we now know that we have closed the gap. It’s no longer every 15 minutes, it’s closer to [an alcohol-related traffic death] every 40 minutes,” Yep said. “We have had students come back from previous programs. One from six years ago, became a major donor for our shirts.”
The community plays a large role in effectively handling such tragedies, Laymen said.
“[Law enforcement] definitely does everything we can because we are real people, we have real families and real grief,” Laymen said. “I’ve seen communities do their part. Agencies like us and schools bring in people to talk. People show their support by putting up memorials, bringing comfort foods, everything they can to support those grieving.”
Life lessons are best learned through experience with the help of teens as well as the community. The simulation provided by Every 15 Minutes had students staring at the clock in anticipation of seeing another ovation worthy simulation within the next two years.
For more information visit the website associated with Every 15 Minutes.