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Teens See Life After Their 'Deaths'

Education: An intense program of mock crashes and pretend fatalities opens the eyes of high schoolers to the tragic effects of driving drunk.

September 26, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In March, Chico Police Officer Melody Davidson almost gave up trying to combat the universal recklessness of youth. She was just leaving the apartment of a 21-year-old who had recently died from alcohol poisoning when two of his friends pulled up. On the front seat between the minors lay a memorial marker for their friend--and two open cans of beer. The underage friends were drunk.

"It was everything we were trying to fight," said Davidson, a member of the alcoholic beverage control unit.

Chico, a mid-sized town with a two-college student population, had a higher than average problem with substance abuse, but young people there are no different from those elsewhere in thinking that they are "invincible and infallible," Davidson said.

What, she wondered, could possibly get through to these kids? Could they ever be made to understand the finality of death, to see the ripples of pain that their choices might bring their parents, their friends or the workers whose job it is to clean up after them?

Her quest for answers eventually turned into an emotionally jolting, two-day drug prevention program involving the mock deaths of 24 students at two high schools, as well as hundreds of parents, emergency workers and community members. Held in May at a cost of $4,000, the program, called "Every 15 Minutes," was honored last week by the attorney general's office with the California Crime Prevention Officers' Assn. and the office of Criminal Justice Planning.

Davidson said the title derives from national statistics that every 15 minutes someone dies in an alcohol-related traffic collision.

The premise of the program, patterned after a smaller-scale effort in Spokane, Wash., is that kids will change their behavior if they see how much their decisions hurt people they love. "That's why it was so powerful," Davidson said. "These kids actually saw what they did to other people."

Police, school and community members spent five months choreographing the event. They chose 24 student leaders from Chico and Pleasant Valley high schools to play the "living dead." Their parents signed permits.

Early the first day, a prerecorded heartbeat was broadcast over the public address system. Every 15 minutes after that, an adult dressed as the Grim Reaper in a black hooded cape appeared in classrooms and called out the name of one of the students. After the student left the room with the Grim Reaper, the teacher read a detailed obituary that had been written by the student's parents.

The students, made up to resemble "the living dead," returned to class but spoke to no one and did not acknowledge people who spoke to them the rest of the day.

At lunch, a mock collision was staged on campus. Paramedics and police responded with helicopters, the Jaws of Life and ambulances. Students played a trapped passenger who was pronounced "dead" at the hospital and a bicyclist who was pronounced "dead" at the scene and zipped into a body bag.

Meanwhile, police contacted parents at home or at their workplaces to inform them that their child had been in an accident and was either dead or not expected to live. Some went to the hospital and were informed by a surgeon that their child was brain dead and were asked to make a decision regarding organ donation.

One mother, Sherry Payne, said that even though the uniformed police officers reminded her that they were playacting, she lost control when they told her that her 16-year-old daughter, Keri, had gotten into a car with a driver under the influence, was involved in a serious accident and had been killed.

"Tears welled up in my eyes. My stomach turned over. Those words will never leave me," she said. "All that day my thoughts were about what our life would be like without her."

To emphasize the idea that they were gone, the "living dead" students spent the night at a retreat where each wrote a letter to their parents that began, "Dear Mom and Dad: Every 15 minutes someone in the United States dies in an alcohol-related traffic collision and today I died. I never got the chance to tell you. . . ."

*

One student, Stacey Carrasco, interviewed in a video documentary of the program, said she had to write two letters because her parents were separated. She and her mother had been estranged, but "being dead" made her realize that "she's always going to be my mom. You're only going to have one mom," she said. "For the first time, I told my mom I loved her and I really meant it."

As intense as the day had been, school district psychologist Ann Phillippe said the emotional climax occurred the following day at an assembly. The show began with a happy music video of students dancing that cut away to the mock collision. Then, some students read their letters to their parents. The chief of police called on emergency workers and real-life survivors of alcohol-related accidents to come forward.

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