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Every 15 Minutes event brings sobering message to La Cañada High School

The far-reaching, sometimes deadly consequences one bad decision can have in the life of a teen were demonstrated in a reenactment event at La Cañada High School that began Thursday with fatal car crash and culminated Friday in a schoolwide funeral.

Giving high schoolers a front-row seat to the perils of drinking and driving, and the exhaustive public safety resources employed in responding to alcohol-related collisions, the biennial Every 15 Minutes program once again hit its mark as students sat spellbound before an unfolding tragedy.

Before the crash, student participants from diverse social groups were taken from their classes by a Grim Reaper figure in 15-minute intervals — a reference to the National Highway Traffic Assn. statistic that prevailed in 1995, the program’s inaugural year, that one person dies from an alcohol-impaired driving fatality every 15 minutes.

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The federal agency adjusted that figure in 2012 to one death every 51 minutes, or about 10,000 deaths annually, but schools operating with grants from the CHP and the California Office of Traffic Safety keep the original title.

The “living dead” students hovered silently near the Oak Grove Avenue collision as firefighters used the jaws of life to disassemble one car and paramedics attended to victims.

“We hope to make an impression that will stay with them,” said LCHS assistant principal and organizer Mary Hazlett. “So that when they’re in a situation and they need to make a choice, this will flash back to them and create a pause.”

While some admitted being struck by the brutality of the simulated crash, LCHS seniors Jessica Murao and Holly Miller protested the event. Arriving in their own bloody makeup, they said they found the theatrics of Every 15 Minutes insulting to those who’ve lost a loved one in real life.

“It isn’t fair for them to not give warning that if you’ve lost someone, you don’t have to come to the assembly,” said Murao.

Miller said the death of father Tom Miller in 2006 from a heart attack forever changed her. Seeing death on display at school seemed to trivialize her experience.

“I understand [drunk driving] is a problem that needs to be solved, but if you do it in this way people aren’t going to take it seriously,” she said. “If you’re going to do this, do real stuff. Tell real stories.”

On Friday a “funeral” assembly for the student victims and their families featured somber eulogies and a guest speaker with real story to share.

Burbank resident Mohamed Hariri — whose 19-year-old sister, Malak, died on Sept. 28, 2013 along with four other teens when the vehicle her drunk friend was driving careened into a guard rail and caught fire — told students how he turned his grief into advocacy.

Today, as a volunteer with the Southern California Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Hariri is determined to stop drunk driving.

That’s a message newly appointed Crescenta Valley Sheriff Station Capt. Chris Blasnek, who attended Thursday simulation, hopes Every 15 Minutes conveys to students.

“As startling as it is, sometimes it’s the only way we can get through to them,” he said. “If this can stop one student from driving under the influence, then we’ve made a difference.”

sara.cardine@latimes.com

Twitter: @SaraCardine

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