Grim Reaper Gives Students a Lesson on Drinking


The dean of students at Westlake High School recently donned a black, hooded cape and spent a day randomly calling seniors out of class to inform the startled teenagers of their untimely death.

David Graber wanted his students to see the consequences of drinking and driving first-hand: that the friend who sits by you in English class could be the next alcohol-related fatality.

"I did the whole Grim Reaper bit with a scythe and everything," said Graber, who painted the faces of his victims white to underscore his message. "If you get kids to consider their own mortality, they'll be less apt to get behind a wheel while compromised."

Campaigns to warn students about the dangers of underage drinking have become common, but Westlake educators say that they are pulling out all the stops to get the point across.

In April, before the senior prom, the school sent 1,800 students to the football stadium, where they watched a rescue helicopter swoop down to two crashed cars at the 50-yard line. The cars were filled with drama students wearing bloody stage makeup.

"It was quite a production," Graber said of the simulated crash that involved 100 volunteers, including personnel from the county sheriff's and fire departments.

Despite such efforts, Graber knows that some teenagers are still drinking.

"No matter how hard you try, kids will use alcohol," he said. "We have influence--not control."

But it doesn't mean the campaigns are not working. "They definitely have an impact," he said. "The more kids consider the ramifications and possible tragedy, the less chance they'll drink and drive."

Jesse Gloyd, a senior at Ventura High School, said teachers might be pushing the message too much.

"People have been saying it for so long we've been desensitized. It's just another catch phrase," the 17-year-old said. "Kids will watch the videos and laugh, saying it's stupid. They aren't taking it seriously."

Ventura High junior Dee Montero agreed: "We've been bombarded by it since we were 5 years old, watching Saturday morning cartoons."

Both students said teenagers will decide for themselves how they will act when it comes to alcohol.

"A lot comes down to basic common sense, and most kids have it," Jesse said. Dee, 17, said she has noticed a trend. "I don't think kids drink and drive much any more. That's more a thing of the 1980s. Kids are smarter now," she said. "The ones who do drink plan around it by designating a driver or sleeping over at someone's house."

Figures for Ventura County were not readily available, but a recent study showed a significant drop in the number of alcohol-related traumas involving teenagers in south Orange County since 1997.

Ventura High sophomore Scott Ellis said he believes the barrage of anti-drinking campaigns has been effective.

"I've seen enough videos and horror stories in driver's training to say it has made an impression," the 16-year-old said.

Those words signal a small victory for Dave Hess, Ventura High's student activities advisor.

"It's really difficult for schools to do anything other than make kids aware of the consequences of drinking," Hess said.

Ventura High, like many other schools, sponsors an all-night graduation party that lets seniors gather in a safe and alcohol-free setting. Ventura also has a "Friday Night Live" club that plans late-night weekend activities.

Rob Hall, a history teacher and varsity basketball coach at Oak Park High School, said he is determined to change the culture that shrugs off alcohol use as part of an adolescent's rite of passage.

As basketball coach, working with some of the most popular boys in school, Hall requires that team members sign contracts saying that they will not drink or attend parties that have alcohol. Otherwise they will be kicked off the team.

Hall conceded there is no way to know if his athletes drink in secret. But by deterring them from attending parties where alcohol is openly served, Hall said, he is slowly beginning to alter alcohol's lure.

"These guys are role models on campus," he said. "And if I can eliminate the high-profile guys from the three-keg party setting, then hopefully the party won't be as attractive anymore."

Hall also holds practices at 8 a.m. on Saturdays to help reduce the chances of any drunken parties after Friday night games.

"It's difficult when you're trying to change a culture," Hall said. "It doesn't happen overnight. I want to make the idea that one of the things a teenager does is drink an obsolete point of view."

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