Screams of agony and remorse filled the air, nearly drowned out by the sounds of sirens and the drone of a LifeFlight helicopter.
It’s known that life’s lessons are best learned through experience, and unfortunately when the target audience is 500 or so Stephenville High School juniors and seniors, and the topic is drinking and driving, experience is not the teacher of choice.
On Thursday, those students were subjected to a simulated traffic accident involving a drunk driver who instantly took the life of a teen and injured three others.
The program, “Every 15 Minutes,” is presented at SHS every two years offering a real-life experience without the real-life risks.
“It creates a reaction that is realistic, bringing the issue to life rather than talking about it,” said Rob Dean, assistant principal at SHS. “There’s an immediate impact where the students realize that drunk driving accidents really do happen and affect their lives.”
Hence the program’s name, according to statistics that a person’s life is lost in an alcohol-related accident every 15 minutes.
Throughout the day students are subjected to that reality, beginning with the viewing of a mock drunk-driving accident. Two damaged cars, provided by Parham’s Garage, were staged on Dale Street near the SHS campus to give the students a close-up look of what happens when a drunk driver gets behind the wheel and takes the life of an innocent person.
To make the event as real as possible, local police, firefighters and emergency responders are called to the scene, complete with sirens blaring and the jaws of life being used to extract an accident victim.
Student volunteers serving as actors are smeared with fake blood as they dangle from the wreckage, screaming in pain from their injuries.
In the street, a student lay dead while the driver responsible for the accident pleads for forgiveness.
The emotionally charged program even provides onlookers with a glimpse at how a state trooper would administer a sobriety test while LifeFlight circles above searching for a spot to land to transport a victim.
Moments later, the justice of the peace, Shawnee Bass in this case, arrives to pronounce the victim deceased while reality begins to set in among the crowd. Soon after, police assist funeral home directors by placing the victim into a body bag for transport to the morgue.
“We’re hoping that it opens students’ eyes up to the risks of drinking and driving or being in the car with someone who drinks and drives,” said Stephenville Police Department School Resource Officer Jimmy Kennerly. “If they come across some of their friends who might want to get behind the wheel, we don’t want anyone to lose their life needlessly because this can be prevented.”
The powerful program is presented just before the spring break to encourage students to make wise choices as they celebrate during the holiday, said Dean. “A lot of times for students, until they see it, they think ‘it won’t happen to me.’ But, it definitely has an impact.”
Not only is the program a lesson in the dangers of drinking and driving for teens, local law enforcement and emergency responders use the opportunity as an exercise in dealing with such traffic accidents.
Kennerly said the program is the result of six months of planning and coordination between local agencies and school officials. Several businesses also came forward with donations to make “Every 15 Minutes” possible.
The program doesn’t end once the wreckage is cleared. The accident victims are transported by ambulance and LifeFlight to Harris Methodist Erath County Hospital. The driver was also “charged” with DWI and sent to Erath County Jail where she was booked to stay the night.
To drive home the message of lives innocently taken by a drunk driver, a grim reaper roams the school’s halls and takes the life of a student. One student is removed from class every 15 minutes and is considered deceased with their obituary and a memorial posted on the school office’s window for all to see.
From that point on the “victims” could not speak or interact with other students for the remainder of the school day. Simultaneously, uniformed officers made mock death notifications to the parents of the children at their home, place of employment or business.
By the end of the day, a total of 31 students “died” in the exercise.
“A lot of students walked by and read the obituaries today. Seeing those victims and their pictures, the students begin to understand the loss,” said Dean. “That’s where they sort of go, ‘Wow, what if something were to happen to one of my friends?’”
At the end of the day, approximately 40 students who participated in the staged accident as well as those who were made-up as the “living dead” were taken to Rocky Point Baptist Church for an overnight retreat. The retreat simulates the separation from friends and family.
During the most powerful program of the retreat, the students were taken through an audio-visualization of their own death. Then each student wrote a letter to his or her parents starting out with: “Dear Mom and Dad, every 15 minutes someone in the United States dies from an alcohol related traffic collision, and today I died. I never had the chance to tell you…”
Parents were also asked to write similar letters to their children. The letters will be shared today when students and parents will be reunited at an assembly at 9:30 a.m. in the SHS auditorium.
A mock funeral service will also be held this morning, opening with a video made from the previous day’s events.
To drive the message home, Kennerly and program organizers have invited a Dublin mother who lost her daughter in a drunk driving accident. She will speak to the SHS students and share her experiences and the emotions felt when learning that her child was killed by a drunk driver.
“We hope the kids take a second look when they’re faced with the decision to drink or to drink and drive,” said Dean. “We’re fortunate here at our school to not have had anything like that happen to a student. One of the reasons is because we put on this event. It has a huge impact on the students.”
Kennerly says he hopes the two-day event will reach those teens who have had to make this decision in the past. “They’re the ones that can change the problems of underage partying that they or their peers have faced. For some folks, we haven’t done that yet. There are some in school that think it won’t affect them. Young people tend to think they’re invincible and that it can’t happen to them. Hopefully we can reach them and change their whole attitude.”