With prom just a few days away, La Cañada High School students this week received a sobering lesson about the dangers of drunken driving that included a staged fatal traffic accident and criminal conviction.
For the third time in six years, LCHS hosted the Every 15 Minutes program, which is designed to discourage teenagers from driving under the influence by presenting them with the hard, and often gory, facts of drunken-driving collisions. The program was funded by a $10,000 state grant, said Assistant Principal Joanne Davidson.
"It's the real-life experiences that we take with us," Davidson said. "Any kind of real learning opportunity is going to hit home with the kids."
Administrators, with the assistance of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's and Fire departments, and the California Highway Patrol, kicked off the program Tuesday by staging a traffic accident in front of the school on Oak Grove Drive. Firefighters used the jaws of life to free one student "victim" from a crushed vehicle, and Los Angeles County coroner officials removed the body of another while students looked on.
Senior Jamie Dick, 18, played a victim who was ejected from a vehicle during the staged crash. Telling students that drinking and driving is dangerous is important, Dick said, but showing them the graphic realities of a deadly crash drives the message home.
"I was just sitting there looking at the car in front of me just thinking about how if I was in that situation how scary that would be if the windshield just popped like that," Dick said.
In addition, one LCHS student was removed from a class every 15 minutes, representing the rate of drunken-driving fatalities in the United States. A picture and flower were placed on the students' desks, and obituaries, written by their parents, were read aloud to the remaining students.
The "dead" students were then transported to the Crescenta Valley Sheriff's Station and Glendale Superior Court, where they saw the drunken driver, 18-year-old Alexandra Kolbe, booked and sentenced for vehicular manslaughter.
La Cañada parents also got in on the act, appearing at the scene of the accident and at the courthouse. Craig and Rita Miller's daughter, Elizabeth Miller, acted as a crash victim, and they played the role of distraught parents. If Every 15 Minutes helps just one family avoid a drunken-driving tragedy, then it was worth it, Craig Miller said.
"[When] you hear the creak of the jaws of life and the pound of the ax on the car, and hear kids freaking out as they scoop brains off the pavement, it has an impact," he said.
The simulation was followed by an assembly on Wednesday during which people shared personal anecdotes. Just two weeks after his sister was sentenced to 15 years in prison for killing a 54-year-old woman in a 2009 drunken-driving accident, LCHS science teacher Tom Traeger described the devastating impact the incident has had on all parties.
The family of the victim was left without a mother and wife, Traeger said.
His sister suffered serious injuries and in now incarcerated. And their mother recently suffered a stroke and died, which he attributed to the stress of the accident and legal fallout.
"If you have done this and haven't gotten caught yet or you haven't killed somebody . . . it is just plain luck," Traeger said. "Keep doing it, like my sister did, and you are likely to get in that car accident."