A drunk driver, a bloody crash scene, dead and dying vehicle occupants.
The Jaws of Life.
This isn’t real but it’s a realistic portrayal of the consequences of drinking and driving that was enacted for juniors and seniors at Oakdale High School on April 11, the first day of a two-day drama called “Every 15 Minutes.”
OHS students Josh Watts, DeWayne Finney, Marcus Northcutt, Lauren Fletcher, Montana Nunes, and Tanner Morgan were the actors in the realistic drama. There were also a number of students who participated as the “Living Dead” to represent teens who die “every 15 minutes” in alcohol-related collisions. A total of 19 students were involved with the event.
“It’s actually really important to me. I’ve had friends and family who’ve died from drunk driving related accidents,” said Living Dead actor Jessica Shatswell of her choice to participate. “It’s really an emotional thing for me. In high school, there are always kids who party and drink and drive, and they don’t realize what effect it could have on people … This could happen to anyone.”
She was pulled from her second period class by the Grim Reaper and her classmates were in shock about it, she said, as no one knew she was a participant. Every 15 minutes, throughout the school day, a student was pulled from class. The students who participated have known their roles since February and had to keep it a secret from their friends. No one, not even their parents, would see or hear from them after they were taken from class on Thursday until the “funeral” held on Friday, the second day of the event.
Lauren Fletcher, who portrayed one of the crash survivors, talked about how hard it was to not tell anyone, especially as the event got closer.
“I’ve been nervous all week,” she said. “It’s in my chest…not being able to let it out all week.”
OHS Vice Principal Diana Crofts began planning the event at the start of the school year. It is usually slated to take place just before the prom, as prom and graduation are the highest risk times for teens and alcohol-related crashes.
“We try to do it in conjunction with prom, and this year it’s in conjunction with rodeo and before prom so we hope the whole community will think twice about drinking and driving,” Crofts said.
As morbid as the event may be, the point of it is to make an impact on the students that will last, and hopefully save lives.
As the crash scene unfolded, the student actors were taken away from the crash scene in different vehicles: an ambulance, a police car, a medical helicopter, and a hearse. The helicopter landed at Oak Valley Hospital, medical workers met the helicopter and wheeled the teen on the gurney inside. He didn’t survive. Two students “died” at the hospital, one was “dead” at the scene, another was “paralyzed.” Parents were notified in realistic situations at the hospital and the mortuary. The “drunk” teen driver – Montana Nunes was arrested, fingerprinted, and locked up behind bars.
Following the crash, the rest of the juniors and seniors who watched the event returned to their classes but their peers from the crash and the Living Dead were gone. Tombstones went up in the school’s quad for each of the “dead” students.
Student participants were then sequestered, without access to their cell phones, and unable to contact friends or family. They went to a retreat at a local hotel where they heard from a Mothers Against Drunk Driving speaker, saw a PowerPoint presentation about distracted driving from a hospital public education worker, and a presentation from AT&T about texting and driving. They went through a candle-lighting ceremony and wrote letters to their parents.
The next day, the event continued with a funeral held in the high school gym. The gym was quiet as a casket draped with flowers was brought in with the Grim Reaper and the Living Dead following closely behind. Nunes, as the “drunk driver” sentenced to 30 years in state prison for her crime, was led in by the police wearing shackles and a jail jumpsuit.
The funeral continued with emotional letters from family members and the Living Dead.
“We are living every parent’s worst nightmare,” was the start to Andrea Keyser’s speech as she read from her letter.
She is the mother of Alexander Keyser, a student who portrayed one of the Living Dead.
“We will never see you graduate and change the world in your own special way,” she added with her voice crackling.
Throughout the gym, sniffles from students could be heard and several people were shedding tears. There were several of these types of speeches made at the orchestrated funeral from parents and Living Dead students.
Alexander Keyser wrote a poem called “Death of Innocence” that he read to his parents and the crowd. The poem expressed the side of the innocent victim who did not drink and was hit by a drunk driver.
“I didn’t have a drink mom, so why am I the one that will die,” Keyser read and ended with, “I love you and goodbye.”
The funeral concluded with special guest speaker, police officer Jim McKeon from Angels Camp. McKeon gave a speech about his life and losing his father to a drunk driver. Before he told his story, he gave a demonstration with a sheet of paper and a lighter. The sheet of paper represented a person and the lighter represented the criminal or drunk driver. He lit the paper with the lighter and the paper disappeared. This was to show how quickly a life could be taken.
“If any of you ever get pulled over and you’re under the influence, don’t ask the officer to give you a break. I’ve had people do that,” McKeon told the students. “Don’t ask the officer to look the other way, because I’ve had people do that. Today is your break. I tell everybody the same thing every time – I’ve had teenagers crying, I’ve had parents upset, I’ve had drunk drivers try to fight me – I’d rather have you guys hate me for the rest of your life because I put you in handcuffs than for you to go out there and kill somebody and have that family hate me because I didn’t stop you.”
The event was paid for through a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety and the California Highway Patrol. T-shirts for the junior and senior classes and special black T-shirts for the participants were donated by Oakdale Sunrise Rotary. Delta Blood Bank also donated T-shirts for participants.
Many local agencies offered their services to the event free of charge including the CHP, Mercy Air helicopter, Oakdale Fire Department, Oakdale Police Department, Oak Valley Hospital, OVHD ambulance services, and Oakdale Memorial Chapel. Haidlen Ford Towing provided the cars for the crash scene. Oakdale school board trustee Mike House has played the Grim Reaper for this event every year, except one, since it started in 2001. Cheryl McIntire, a film special effects makeup artist did the makeup on the crash scene victims.