Rain smeared blood all over the pavement at Sonoma Valley High School Thursday as students screamed in pain and cried in devastation at a horrific two-car collision caused by drunk drivers. Emergency personnel responded to the gruesome accident and one student was taken away in handcuffs while several others were rushed to the hospital or the morgue. A palpable lesson hung in the air as the junior and senior classes witnessed the aftermath of the alcohol-related accident – don’t drink and drive.
The realistic scene was staged as part of the national program, Every 15 Minutes, which seeks to prevent alcohol-related car accidents among teens by promoting awareness of the severity of these types of crashes and how they affect a community.
Sixteen juniors and seniors were nominated by teachers to participate in the dramatized program with “victims” played by Javia Headley, Aaron Pino, Jazmin Chavez, Dylan Arias, Danny Banales, Adalid Hernandez, Dylan Ferreira, Ava Gonzales, Luis Ikeo, Gina Peil, Rodrigo Rico, Bryan Ruiz, Christen Silkey, Sam Sondheim and Crystal Vences. Student Owen Ljung played the grim reaper.
The event, which is organized by School Resource Officer Matt Regan, Sonoma Valley Fire Rescue Capt. Jeff Paganini and SVHS history teacher Bernadette Weissmann, takes about six months to plan, with involvement from the Sonoma Police Department, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, California Highway Patrol, Sonoma Valley Hospital, Sonoma County Coroner’s Office, Sonoma Valley Fire Rescue, Bonneau’s Towing and Mechanical, Duggan’s Mission Chapel and numerous other volunteers.
The 24-hour simulation began with the staged accident on Thursday morning, with six student participants and an assembly of juniors and seniors who witness the crash scene and see what could happen if their peers were actually drinking and texting while driving, and caused a fatal accident. Throughout the day, more students are removed from class to demonstrate the program’s founding idea “every 15 minutes someone dies in an alcohol-related crash.”
The 16 students were secluded from the rest of their peers and their families and taken to jail, the morgue and the hospital as if they really were involved in that tragic accident.
They then spent a night away from their families, with no cellphone or outside communication, under the supervision of designated chaperones. During the retreat, students and parents wrote letters to each other as if they had a chance to say goodbye before “dying” in a drunk driving accident.
While parents are notified their children will be participating in the simulation, they aren’t told in exactly what capacity. As a result, they experience very real emotions, parent Victor Headley said. It wasn’t until he sat down to write the letter to his daughter, Javia Headley, that Victor Headley realized the gravity of the program. Javia Headley played one of the passengers in the crash and was “paralyzed” in the accident. “This could be a possibility and it really hits home. You never think something like this could happen and this helps students understand it’s possible,” Victor Headley said.
Tombstones are set up on campus to honor the “victims” of the crash. On Friday, a mock memorial service was held at an assembly with all juniors and seniors – including the sixteen student participants and their families – and members of local law enforcement, fire and rescue and health services in attendance.
The assembly, centered around a casket to symbolize those “killed” Thursday, started with a video showing the students in the crash acting out a morning of drinking, and the drunk driving that led to the fatal accident. The storyline for this year’s event pointedly included a scene in which one of the drivers is texting while driving, adding to the distractions drivers face today.
Guest speaker Wendy Reynolds addressed students with a powerful story about her own involvement in an alcohol-related accident. Reynolds, who lives in Walnut Creek, is a lawyer and part-time judge in Alameda County. In the past, she was a prosecutor and “worked to put people like the (student drivers) in the accident behind bars.” But the personal story Reynolds shared was much more powerful and visibly moved students in the audience. Tears flowed and a somber mood swept the room as Reynolds recalled how a drunk driver killed her father, mother and 1-year-old sister in a car accident in a small Illinois town years ago. Reynolds was only 5 at the time and was the only survivor in her family’s car. “One minute I was with my family and the next minute I was an orphan and an only child,” she told the crowd.
When it comes to drinking or drinking and driving, Reynolds told students they have a choice to make, just like the driver who killed her family had a choice. “He had a choice to make and he chose to drive,” she said of her family’s killer. “His friends had a choice to not let him drive, too.”
“The prison ended up releasing a killer, but the caskets and the ground my parents and sister were buried in never released them,” a teary-eyed Reynolds said. Her heartbreaking story of finding out her family was killed, and living with that knowledge, is part of the program’s attempt to make the mock accident into something real. “I am your warning call. It happens to people you know,” Reynolds said. “I’m Wendy Reynolds, you know me now.”
Reynolds, who travels around the country speaking at Every 15 Minutes events, said she feels that part of the reason she is alive today is to share her experience to help others. “Maybe my purpose for living is to talk to you guys,” she told the students. “Maybe I can save one of you from making a bad choice.”
She explained to the students that when they go to a party, or choose to drink or do drugs, they have a life or death decision to make: “How are you getting home?” Reynolds urged students to designate a driver, prevent others from driving impaired and texting while driving, and even to call a friend or parent to give them a ride. “Your parents would much rather get a call from you than from the morgue.”
One student, Aaron Pino, who was “killed” in the crash and taken away in a body bag, read the letter he wrote to his parents. Parents also had the opportunity to share their letters.
“We’re here because, every 15 minutes, this happens,” Reynolds said to the silent crowd. “It’s the consequences of your choices, the consequences of your actions that can affect a community. … Do what you have to do to keep people on the roads safe.”
Deputy Regan explained how students constantly hear the message, “Don’t drink and drive,” but the Every 15 Minutes event puts that message into perspective. “You hear it so much, but what does it mean ‘don’t drink and drive’?” he said. “It’s important to show the dangers so you know what can actually happen if you drink and drive.”
This year was the fourth time the school has held the program, Regan said, adding the event is only put on every two years. In the past, the school has sought grants to fund the event, but this year, funds accrued in previous years paid for the entire program.
“There are roughly 600 juniors and seniors at the high school this year,” Regan said. “If we make a difference with one kid, then we have done our job.”
At the end of Friday’s assembly, before students filed back to their classrooms, there was a quiet reflection and teens and adults alike took a moment to hug one another, remembering just how precious life is and thankful that the staged event – though elaborate – was not real life.
For more information on the Every 15 Minutes program, visit every15minutes.com.
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