The crime scene was not real. The response, emotion and message which followed however, was hardly rehearsed for 20 Oakdale High School students and their families on Monday.
The exercise … Every 15 Minutes, a drinking and driving prevention program simulated to open the eyes of the student body of just how quickly life can change when making the wrong decision. Naturally given the age of the students the first wrong decision would be consuming alcohol in the first place given the law of one must be 21 or older to consume an alcoholic beverage. The second and potentially most harmful would be getting behind the wheel while under the influence.
On Monday, April 15 more than 700 juniors and seniors of OHS converged on an area of campus and watched as a mock accident scene played out. An exercise which is made possible due to the partnership of Oakdale Joint Unified School District with the California Highway Patrol and a host of other organizations.
The program is kept quiet prior to the day of the accident to maintain its authenticity. OHS Vice Principal Shannon Kettering meets with students, as well as CHP Officers, volunteers and parents to properly prepare for the 24-hour event.
The program begins with the crash scene and continues to be documented by film crews throughout the next 24 hours, which is then played at a mock funeral the next morning.
“Even though we all know it’s not real, it’s hard for parents,” Kettering said of the participants and the gratitude she felt for the families. “It’s emotional.”
So as not to marginalize the impact and reach as many students as possible, a random cross section of students is selected by Kettering. Five of the chosen students participate in the live crash scene while the others serve as the “Walking Dead” symbolizing those killed each day at the hands of a drunk driver.
“We have not had an alcohol related fatality of a teenager since we started this program,” Kettering said. “Now I don’t know if this is what does it, but I’d like to think it has some part.”
According to California Highway Patrol Officer and PIO Thomas Olsen, Stanislaus County is one of the leaders in the state regarding this program.
“It’s gotten to a point where almost every single high school in our county participates in this program,” he said, “and that’s unheard of statewide. We’re very fortunate.”
A total of 12 programs will be concluded throughout the county by the end of the 2019 calendar year.
“This event cost $25,000 to put on,” Kettering said. “It’s $15,000 from the first responders in terms of salary and equipment that is used, that we can’t reuse and I spend $10,000 at this level for food and lodging and all that. But they give a lot. We give a lot because we believe in it.”
The breakdown of the $10,000 contributed by OJUSD breaks out to $6,000 via a grant from the Office of Traffic Safety and an additional $4,000 by Oakdale Joint Unified School District.
Kettering also stated that she relies on the diverse student participants to serve as ambassadors for the message beyond the 24-hour experience, noting to the participants that she counts on them to be the voice of reason when placed in the real life situation of a person making a decision to drive while under the influence.
“This program is effective because we keep it as real as possible,” Officer Olsen said. “I’m not sugar coating saving peoples’ lives. It can be disturbing for some. It can be a wake-up call for some.
“It’s just one bad decision,” Olsen added, noting that a drunk driving incident is viewed as a crime versus an accident. The intent to operate a vehicle while under the influence is not an accident, it’s intentional. A choice which can and does have irreversible impact on people’s lives.
While the accident scene is jarring, even unnerving to some degree, it is the mock funeral the following day which brings the rawest emotion. On Tuesday morning, the student participants were joined by a gym filled with their classmates as well as their families. This is the first time students and their families have seen one another, since leaving for school early Monday morning for make-up and preparation for the program.
During the 24-hour Every 15 Minutes Program the student participants are kept in remote locations away from friends and family. Every effort is made to make the enactment feel as real as possible.
“Travel collisions are different than other ways of dying,” Officer Olsen said at the start of the event. “They are sudden and in this particular case, rob us of our family and friends. Fortunately we are in an environment where we can press rewind, reflect on the past and express our thoughts to those still with us.”
Following this, participants are called upon to read a letter written either to the parents or their child. Final words of love and admiration for one another shared.
“It’s the video the next day that everybody watches,” Kettering said of the student body impact and effect of the program. “When they see parents, it’s what kids respond to.
“I feel the beat of it for months afterward,” the Vice Principal said. “I have kids come to me and say, man that changed my life. It just makes kids more aware of their limit.”