While his fellow La Cañada High classmates spent most of last Thursday in classrooms and on the quad, senior Brandon Grandalski lay on a hospital bed at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital, where a medical team pronounced him dead.
They pulled a sheet over his head, noting the time of death, and asked his distraught father to come in from the lobby for a final visit.
“Hearing him talk to me was pretty emotional. He was asking me to open my eyes, to come back — it was hard to go through,” the teen recalled.
Grandalski’s experience playing a victim of a simulated drunk-driving accident through the immersive “Every 15 Minutes” program, performed biennially at LCHS, was part of a two-day event that dragged a cohort of students through the long and grueling, albeit fictitious, aftermath of one student’s decision to drink and drive.
Students were pulled from classes in 15-minute intervals, to illustrate the frequency of DUI fatalities when the program began in 1995 (the Centers for Disease Control has adjusted that frequency to every 50 minutes), and turned into ghosts who roamed campus while upperclassman watched a DUI accident unfold on Oak Grove Drive.
Senior Nicole Reynold’s character died on scene, while classmate and DUI suspect Jake George was handcuffed and taken to jail to await sentencing. Students shuffled back to class, but for participants the lessons were just beginning.
The small group went to the Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Station to learn how the Coroner’s Office processes bodies before heading to the Glendale Courthouse for George’s sentencing. Defense attorney Irma Vargas requested L.A. Superior Court Judge Carlos Vazquez be lenient on the LCHS senior, who had no prior record, but prosecutor Vira Samouhi stood her ground.
“He chose to drink … and to get behind the wheel of a vehicle,” she said. “He killed two people. These two victims will not have a chance to graduate from college, to go to college, or to live the lives they had ahead of them, all because the defendant chose to drink and drive.”
Vazquez sentenced George to eight years in prison.
“How long does it take to ruin your life?” he asked students. “You make one bad decision … and your life is thrown upside down and everything you have worked for is out the window. You don’t want to go through this.”
Afterward, students headed to Forest Lawn cemetery and then to a hotel, where they would write goodbye notes to their families before a mock school funeral on Friday.
LCHS security head Tanya Wilson said she selected students of varied backgrounds, who were likely to share with friends what they learned over the program’s two days.
“It’s meant to impact as many kids as possible,” she said.
After Thursday’s sentencing, George reflected on his experience.
“The jail was pretty rough,” he admitted. “The worst is probably being in court, seeing my mom. That would be the tough part.”
“Every 15 Minutes” is funded by a grant from the California Highway Patrol, offered through the state’s Office of Traffic Safety, as well as contributions and in-kind donations from the city of La Cañada Flintridge and local organizations hoping to make an impression on teens.
Reynolds said there’s something in the program LCHS students need to hear.
“This is a problem in La Cañada,” she said of drunk driving. “This is not a game, this is not a script. It’s something people go through every single day.”