Fake crash sends real message

Rocklin students exposed to consequences of DUI
By: Andrew Westrope, Staff Writer
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About 900 Whitney High School juniors and seniors watched in Rocklin on Tuesday as four of their classmates were hauled away in stretchers and body bags from a pair of mangled vehicles.

The California Highway Patrol and school staff had gathered the students for a lesson in choices and consequences: The next time they saw such a thing, it might be real. It might be them.

Funded by a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety, CHP organizes an “Every 15 Minutes” program at most high schools once every two years to show upperclassmen the dangers of drunk or distracted driving.

For Tuesday’s demonstration, unsuspecting students were pulled out of class and ushered to a set of bleachers on Ranch View Drive, where they sat in full view of two crumpled vehicles made to look as if they had been in a serious accident. Four of their classmates, dressed with bloody makeup and playing the part, appeared to have been involved.

Emergency responders arrived shortly after the student audience, sirens blaring and equipment in tow. What followed was met with dead silence, apart from the hum of ambulance engines and grave exchanges between the responders at work.

Emergency responders moved Whitney High student Jordan Powell from a vehicle into an ambulance on a stretcher, exhumed Kyle McCray from the wreckage with the Jaws of Life to be airlifted and arrested Walker Carpenter when he failed a sobriety test. Maddie Dart, who lay sprawled on the hood of one vehicle, was declared dead on-site and removed by an undertaker’s van.

Organizers said the idea of the skit, which had been months in the planning, was to make an indelible impression on students so they wouldn’t put themselves in a position to repeat the experience.

After the emergency responders had gone, Assistant Principal Jason Feuerbach sent the students back to class with a closing statement.

“Whether you choose to drink and drive or choose not to stop a friend who is driving under the influence, it is your choice,” he said. “You always have a choice.”

Excepting a multiple-fatality incident in Applegate two years ago, Officer David Martinez said local data on drunk driving fatalities is sparse because there haven’t been many, but national statistics are encouraging. Since the program started about 15 years ago, he said, its eponymous statistic that one teenager is killed in a drunk-driving accident every 15 minutes has changed to one an hour.

“We haven’t had very many teen alcohol-related deaths in quite a while, and I think a lot of it has to do with these programs,” he said. “We still have a problem, but it is getting better.”

Martinez credited several parties with helping to stage the event, including CHP, local police and fire officials, school administrators, Chapel of the Valley Cremations and Funerals, a contracted makeup artist and parent and student actors. He said program organizers chose four student actors with different peer groups to reach as many people as possible. Another 15 were chosen to be the “walking dead,” who were systematically pulled out of class throughout the day to demonstrate what one student dying every 15 minutes would mean.

Hopeful the event made an impact, Feuerbach said the lesson would carry over to a staged funeral service the next day to drive the point home.

“We think more than anything, it just makes the kids aware of the situation,” he said. “Not that you’re going to stop them all from partying and drinking, but if we can stop them from getting behind the wheel first, I think that’s the huge first step, and then from there to work on making smart choices.”

After watching the reactions of a classmate’s grieving parents, however rehearsed, 16-year-old Joe Larussa said the spectacle definitely made an impression.

“When you see it in person, you can really see the impact that it has on the family that showed up, and you can see how tragic it really is,” he said.

Luis Gutierrez, a 17-year-old senior, found the program more relatable than any fact sheet of drunk driving statistics.

“The realism of seeing it in person really brings a personal touch to it,” he said. “It’s not just hearing about it. It’s really being there and getting to see everything happen.”