If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years in this business, it’s that the ‘story behind the story’ is often the more interesting to tell.
Take, for example, the recent Every 15 Minutes program staged at Escalon High School. This realistic depiction of a drunken driving crash involving teens is put on every other year, and has taken place since 2004 at EHS. Oakdale High School also does this program, with the next one scheduled there in 2013.
Beyond bringing juniors and seniors out for an hour to watch the gripping drama unfold, the program also takes their classmates ‘every 15 minutes’ during the morning prior to the simulation. They are plucked out of class, their obituaries read and they are escorted out by the Grim Reaper, not to be seen again by their friends or family for the rest of the day and on in to the next, following the conclusion of the program.
Months of preparation go into this event, from selecting the student participants, practices, coordination between multiple emergency services and police agencies. It’s something we have covered as a newspaper since its inception in Escalon and it never ceases to amaze me the effect that is has. The bulk of students in the stands are attentive, caught up in the emergency efforts going on to save their friends, to extricate that well-known football player from the demolished car, to take the pulse of that standout scholar … the scenes are set up and the ‘cast’ assembled from all walks of school life. Every cultural subgroup on campus ‘loses’ someone, be it athlete, drama, music, FFA, academics.
Drinking and driving touches everyone and the Every 15 Minutes program brings that into clear focus.
For the students that take part in the accident scene itself and the ‘living dead’ who are also sequestered, barred contact with family and friends for a 24-hour period, the point is driven home and in many cases, it is life changing. Senior Jessica Redding, who portrayed this year’s DUI driver, causing the crash that claimed the lives of two classmates in the scenario, was deeply impacted and emotionally drained by the experience, vowing to be a better role model for her younger brothers, taking the message of ‘safety first’ to heart. One of the victims, Gino Franceschetti, said he never wanted to go through those feelings of loss again, feeling the effect of being separated from family and friends. Even knowing it’s just for a short time, the program demonstrates for all involved what it might feel like to lose someone.
For those who help put it together, it becomes a passion in passing along the potential life-saving message.
Former San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Chris Stevens has been a key ingredient in this program, not only in Escalon, but several other schools as well. When he was told last year that his other duties within the sheriff’s department were too time-consuming and he would have to forego participating in Every 15 Minutes, he did what he had to do.
Now he does Every 15 Minutes as a private citizen, retired law enforcement officer, because he believes so much in its impact.
One of the three coordinators of the Escalon event, Irene Laugero, suffered an incredible personal loss on the brink of the local program this year, as her father recently passed away. Yet there she was, present and involved, because she believes so much in the impact of this program.
Fellow coordinators Debbie Murken and Cathy Pinheiro – whose husbands have careers in the fire/police field, know firsthand the devastation dealing with DUI accidents and untimely deaths can cause, so they too, are there, delivering the message.
For Escalon, the cultural change it has brought about in the school is immeasurable. Statistics for EHS were grim to the point that it seemed like every year or two, another high school student was lost to drinking and driving in some way, be it victim or defendant in a DUI crash. In one three-year period, just prior to the Every 15 Minutes being brought to the school, four high school students were lost.
As Chris Stevens emphatically pointed out to the students during the Friday wrap up ‘memorial service’ in the school gym, not one EHS student has died in an alcohol related accident since the program started. Students need to keep looking out for each other, he said, and love each other enough to take the keys away, call a parent for help, or make sure someone is the designated driver to get everyone home safely.
For some families, the ‘loss’ and separation also can be the start of a healing process, as parents and teens involved write letters to each other, saying all those things they wanted to say but never had the chance. They share these later and some reveal past hurts and the willingness to forgive and move on, while others seek that forgiveness. It’s a reminder to take the time to listen, to love, to learn and make changes and good choices while there is still the opportunity.
It’s naïve to think that simply bringing Every 15 Minutes to a community will stop teens from drinking, heading out on the weekend for that party spot they think no one knows about. But it does give them information they can use, start a culture where they take responsibility for each other, where losing someone won’t be tolerated. There’s too much life to be lived to throw it away with one split second decision.
Be smart. Be safe. Care enough to make the right choice.
That’s the real story.
Marg Jackson is editor of The Escalon Times and The Oakdale Leader and assistant editor for The Riverbank News. She may be reached at email@example.com or by calling 847-3021.