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Newport-Mesa Unified students, parents speak out against DUIs

The emotionally charged message delivered to several hundred students and parents at Corona del Mar High School's gymnasium Wednesday morning was clear: Accidents happen, but those involving drinking and driving are entirely preventable.

Guest speaker Gloria Morales, 33, closed the school's Every 15 Minutes program. Her 17-year-old daughter, Crystal Morales, suffered life-threatening injuries after being hit by a car driven by an allegedly impaired driver.

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"Immediately, when I found out the details of the accident, it broke my heart and it killed me," Morales said to the students. "Something died in me that day. I wanted to take her out of that hospital bed and put myself in it. You never want your child to suffer for something that could have been prevented."

According to police, the driver, Marnie Jo Lippincott, was under the influence of alcohol and drugs when she struck the Newport Harbor High School senior with her Chevy Tahoe in a crosswalk near the school last December. Lippincott's pretrial hearing in the case is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. April 9.

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Morales spoke about the impact that the crash had on her life and the lives of her two children. She listed Crystal's sustained injuries — including lacerations to her kidney, liver and spleen, a fractured vertebra in her neck, a broken pelvic bone and traumatic brain injury, from which she has not yet recovered.

After having a metal bar removed from her pelvic bone, Crystal woke up crying with joy, exclaiming that it was the happiest day of her life, Morales said.

"To me," she explained, "the happiest day of her life should have been graduating high school. It shouldn't have been sitting in a hospital bed, happy that a bar is being pulled out of her bones that someone else put there."

Cautioning students against making that decision to drive under the influence with her own tragic experience, Morales closed with a powerful message: "Her broken bones have healed. Her internal bleeding had stopped. But Crystal will probably never be the same as she was prior to the accident.

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"But we're very lucky she's here. Car accidents are not preventable, but DUI accidents are 100% preventable. You all can do something differently. You can make the right choice."

Juniors, seniors and some participating parents also shared a series of faux eulogies and real tears.

"This is the most powerful part of the program," said Newport Beach School Resource Officer Vlad Anderson, who emceed the event. "Because we get to share the gravity of what we discussed yesterday with the rest of our community."

On Tuesday, nearly 800 students witnessed the full, terrifying spectrum of a drunk-driving crash, including paramedics, police and the coroner.

The second day's events opened with a morose sounding of bagpipes and a duet rendition of "Amazing Grace" by 17-year-old juniors Gabi Ford and Jenna Funsten, after which 28 students entered slowly from the back of the gym.

Passing filled rows of chairs capped with tissue boxes, they walked toward the podium, where each placed a red rose on a glossy black coffin.

Glimpses from Tuesday's gripping drunk-driving reenactment flashed on a large screen at the front of the gym. Mothers, fathers and students sat fixated, many overcome by emotion.

Post-video, three students acting as deceased victims of the accident read letters from the grave they had written to their parents. Two parents also read faux eulogies, lamenting the full and beautiful life they'll never have.

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"Today and yesterday are definitely emotionally draining," senior Jonathan "Jono" Keedy, 18, said after the program. "It's so shocking how many lives drunk driving can completely change. Just hearing people's stories is so powerful. Everyone was crying by the end. It just got more and more intense."

Among the 28 student participants, Keedy noted that the program included a mix of students from many different social groups at the school, each with its own alcohol-abuse related experience. He deemed Every 15 Minutes as "completely the most effective program for discouraging drunk driving" and vowed to never drink and drive in his lifetime.

"One word I can think back on for this Every 15 Minutes program is the word 'courage,'" Anderson said at the end. "Yesterday was very demanding emotionally, and so is today. It takes a lot of courage to volunteer for this and experience it fully."

Anderson further commended the efforts of all students, giving special thanks to senior ASB President Sarah Hostetler, 18, and senior ASB Vice President Ariana Naaseh, 17, for their coordination of the project between students, parents and the Police Department.

Hostetler said that though it was incredibly difficult working with the different schedules of almost 30 high school students and their parents, the results were "well worth the time and the lives it will save."

Twitter: @TheDailyPilot

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