Thinking the unthinkable: Drill exposes the grim reality of drunken driving
Last Thursday, the unthinkable happened just outside of Tahoe-Truckee High School.
At approximately 11:45 p.m., two students walking towards the school were struck and killed by another student – a drunk driver.
When emergency crews arrived, one was pronounced dead at the scene. The other was transported to Tahoe Forest Hospital, where he died shortly thereafter in his mother’s arms.
Fortunately for these students, this nightmarish scenario wasn’t real, but a staged reenactment as part of “Shattered Dreams,” a two-day interactive alcohol education program for high school students. The event is sponsored by local law enforcement agencies and the district’s Youth In Action chapter.
North Tahoe High School was scheduled to undergo the same program later this week.
“Shattered Dreams,” is the district’s own rendition of the “Death Every 15 Minutes Program” – a program developed by the California Highway Patrol in the early 1990s to challenge teens to think about drinking, personal safety, and responsible decision-making.
“The program was originally based on the statistic that every 15 minutes, someone in this country dies in an alcohol-related accident,” said Youth Coordinator and Placer County Sheriff’s Deputy Melinda. “While that particular statistic has actually improved since the program was created to about one death per every 29.5 minutes, now we are seeing an tremendous increase in binge drinking among teens. It’s as though they’ve replaced one deadly behavior with another and that’s why we decided to change the name.”
Maehler first implemented the program in the district six years ago after a devastating alcohol-related accident on Highway 267 killed a Bay Area man and his two children.
“My husband was one of the CHP officers to respond the scene and it really shook him,” Maehler said, shaking her head. “After that, I knew I had to do something to try and prevent these tragedies from reoccurring in our community. And the best way to do that is to start with our young people.”
Back at the scene of Thursday’s staged accident, students, particularly those participating in the crash, appear shaken. Law enforcement and emergency crews respond to the incident as if it was real. One student was even placed in a body bag and hauled away in a hearse by employees of Truckee Tahoe Mortuary. A professional make-up artist works on participants to make the accident appear even more realistic.
Dawn Gunter, a TTHS graduate who played the role of deceased in the event two-years-ago, came back to watch this year’s as an observer.
“It’s definitely an eye-opener for a lot of kids, mainly those who participate,” she said. “I remember laying there in the body bag, able to hear everything going on around me, but not being able to talk to anyone because I was supposed to be dead. It was really crazy.”
Gunter said when to this day when she goes out with friends, there’s always a designated driver.
In addition to the staged accident, which was viewed by the entire student body, close to 30 students were plucked from their classes throughout the day by an officer dressed up as the Grim Reaper, while another officer read that student’s obituary to the rest of the class.
Those students were then taken to the school auditorium, or “the land of the living dead” for the day, where they can only talk to one another, the Grim Reaper or the officers around them.
They didn’t return home that night either, but spent the night away from family and friends, writing good-bye letters to loved ones as though they were really dead.
The parents of students supposedly killed in alcohol-related incidents received formal death notifications as well. Although they realize the whole thing is an act, for some parents it brings their worst fears to life.
“It was something that I had envisioned a million times,” said Debby Echenique, mother of 18-year-old TTHS senior Andre Echenique, who played the role of one of the students killed in the car wreck.
When Echenique arrived at Tahoe Forest Hospital to find her son lying dead – bloody and bluish – in the emergency room, with hospital staff playing along, it was almost too much for her to handle. She collapsed into tears, as did many of the nurses surrounding her.
“To see your child lying there like that, is almost too much to bear,” she said. “I really hope this has an impact on the students.”
The next day, the whole school came together for an emotional assembly in students and parents who participated in the program read the letters they had written.
“There’s rarely a dry eye in the house at these things,” said Truckee Police Officer Roy Richner. “It’s extremely intense.”
Previously, the program, which takes place every other year right before prom weekend, was targeted at juniors and seniors only.
This year, Maehler decided to include freshmen and sophomores for the first time. It was also the first year that the program was sponsored by Maehler’s Youth In Action team, a youth-empowerment group and offshoot of Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD) that seeks to change attitudes surrounding the acceptability of underage drinking and teen drug use through community such as this one.
Maehler said if this program even makes an impact on students for a few days, to get them through the notorious prom weekend, than it’s doing the job.
“A lot of people say that scare tactics don’t work, but that’s not what we are trying to do,” Maehler said. “It’s about showing people why we worry so deeply about underage drinking. If people go to see the horrible things that law enforcement sees – the bodies on the side of the road – they might understand why we’re doing this.”
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If Israel and the United Kingdom are any indication, widespread vaccination will knock the pandemic down to … normal life. Something near.