Upper grade classrooms were empty, halls sounded a bit hollow and local first responders stayed busy as Oakdale High School observed and brought to life the Every 15 Minutes Program on Thursday and Friday.
“The support from the community was profound,” OHS Vice Principal and first year organizer, Shannon Kettering said, noting the participation of Oakdale Police Department, Stanislaus Consolidated Fire, California Highway Patrol, Oakdale Memorial Chapel, Oak Valley Hospital and Stanislaus County Sherriff donating their time and services for the April 30 – May 1 program.
“They made it so seamless,” she said. “It was such a wonderful thing for me to experience. I’ll do it again.”
Every 15 Minutes is an on campus event designed to dramatically grab the attention of students with the potentially dangerous consequences of drinking and driving.
‘We do this every two years,” Kettering stated. “It’s done so every junior and senior is affected.”
The timing of it is also essential as it directly precedes Prom, which was hosted Saturday night.
During the course of the 24-hour period a simulated fatal car crash was staged on the far lawn of the OHS soccer field. A tarp covered the scene as the juniors and seniors descended upon the scene. As the tarp was raised the crash was revealed.
OHS junior Derrick Pennington took on the heavy role as the ‘drunk’ driver, which caused the revealed scene. His car smashed against the front end of the vehicle holding Jenny Guzman as the driver, her boyfriend Frankie Trent draped across the hood of the car and Stephen Kjelgaard and Landen Ichord seated as passengers in the back seat. Sixteen additional students were present as the Walking Dead not far off from the scene with a “Grim Reaper” standing among them.
As the scene went ‘live’ all but Frankie began engaging in dialogue.
“Frankie wake-up … Why isn’t he moving? … There’s blood everywhere … Frankie! Come on buddy,” the anguished words filling the air like fireworks. Frankie, however, did not respond. Frankie was ‘dead.’
Each of the five victims in the two vehicles was removed from the scene via police car, helicopter, ambulance or hearse.
The others were sequestered to spend their day in the library for the remainder of the school day. No technology. No outside contact with friends or family and as they were shut off from the world, their parents and friends were ‘notified.’ Obituaries of the students were read in their classrooms and black roses placed at their desks.
Participation, however, did not stop with the 21 selected students. It impacts as well as involves their friends, family and community. As participants they were each retained and disconnected from the outside world until the final moments of the ‘funeral’ conducted on Friday morning in the OHS gym.
“Absolutely the dedication of these kids, I am most grateful for,” Kettering said. “They were willing to play dead. We had a kid who was willing to play a drunk driver. That took a tremendous amount of courage.
“I could not have scripted Derrick’s letter if I tried,” she continued, referring to the letter written and read by Pennington during Friday’s funeral. “It was so well read and spoken. It still brings me chills.”
According to Kettering the students selected could not have been a better cross section for the student body. As a new administrator, she was not familiar with the participants or their ‘stories.’ Yet she recognized as the event grew closer, as well as during that they were indeed the right mix.
“During the retreat the students got very real,” she said of their off campus night stay at a local hotel, indicating that students shared their personal experiences with alcohol and driving. “To make that kind of admission is huge.”
“We now all share a really cool bond,” OHS senior and walking dead participant Taylor Speer-Gettle said. “We really didn’t know each other before this, but this is something that has really connected us.”
The senior shared the isolation from friends and family was among the toughest challenge, noting the crash scene as both disturbing and emotional, as the walking dead watched it live for the first time, as did the others. Nothing is rehearsed.
Friday’s funeral in the OHS gymnasium would bring it all to a close as families waited to touch and hold their children again.
“Today we are here to mourn those who lose their lives because of someone’s senseless decision to use alcohol and get behind the wheel of a car,” CHP Officer Eric Parsons shared in the opening address.
“Every 15 minutes someone is killed or seriously injured and every 15 minutes there is a set of parents, family, friends that lose a loved one. That lose someone that meant everything to them,” he said.
Guest speaker Officer Jim McKeon offered testimony and a moving speech of how his life was both changed and impacted by the loss of his father to a drunk driver when he was young.
“Statistically, the statistics are against you guys,” McKeon stated as he wrapped up. “Somebody in this room will eventually decide to drink and drive. Please prove me wrong. If you get stopped please do not ask a law enforcement officer to give you a break. Today is your break.”