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Teens spend serious time learning DUI dangers

A very real danger just got more real for Claremont High School students.

Last week, the local teens got a lesson in the importance of sober driving when they were exposed to a simulated crash and its grim aftermath. The event was part of Every 15 Minutes, a program aimed at preventing young people around the world from driving drunk or while texting.

On Wednesday, March 26, juniors and seniors at CHS gathered on bleachers on Indian Hill to view a shocking scene: Two totaled vehicles and several students who were supposedly dead or injured.

The mock collision was said to have occurred when a student coming home from a party, intoxicated and texting on his phone, rammed into a car packed with students. His two passengers were “killed,” one on the scene and the other en route to the hospital. Seven students in all were involved in the faux catastrophe, five of whom were said to have lost their lives.

In an impressive show of cooperation, an array of first responders gathered on the scene, including representatives of the Claremont Police Department, the LA County Fire Department, Mercy Air Rescue and Cole Schaefer Ambulance Service. Also on hand were employees from the LA County Coroner and S&J Towing.

There was nothing subtle about the presentation of the effects of bad driving choices. Injured passengers in both cars were made up with fake blood and injuries. The sight of Kyle Ward, who was sprawled on the hood of the car driven by the intoxicated student, was particularly jarring. He was soon wrapped in a sheet and carried off on a gurney into the coroner’s van.

“It felt weird,” he said. “I couldn’t do anything to help out with the scene. I just had to lay there.”

Senior Christopher Thomas portrayed the drunk driver. He was motivated to participate in Every 15 Minutes because he had a cousin who was struck by a drunk driver two years ago. While his relative lived, some of the effects have been lasting.

“I wanted to make an impact on my peers so they can see how [drunk driving] can change your life in the blink of an eye,” he explained.

Christopher was “booked” by Claremont police and taken to the local jail. Once there, he had to make a tough phone call to his father and tell him that he had been the perpetrator in a deadly drunk driving accident. While both the student and his dad knew the call was part of the Every 15 Minutes program, Christopher said he couldn’t help but empathize with the abject shame and horror that a real drunk driver must feel. 

“It was a feeling of letting people down,” he said. “It hit you hard. I just lost it.”

After the students were transported from the crash scene, they gathered for a full slate of events, including a visit to Todd Memorial Chapel in Claremont. There, they learned about funeral costs and arrangements and went downstairs to look at different caskets.

“It was very surreal because at one point in our lives, we’ll be in that situation, whether it’s for our parents or for someone else,” CHS senior Samantha Stephens shared. “It was just very eerie.”

The eeriness continued after students returned to their classrooms. The Grim Reaper wandered into a number of classrooms, and selected students, one by one, to represent the Living Dead, those who die every day due to drunk driving. The “victims” were taken to a room where ghostly makeup was applied to their faces. Counselors then went around and read the students’ obituaries.

When the Grim Reaper tapped a kid, you could feel a sudden tension in the room, according to Walking Dead participant Shane Uhl.

“We had to spend the rest of the day being quiet, which was hard, being an ADHD kid,” he said.

The drunk driving awareness event also included a presentation at the high school by a man who, years ago, was involved in a horrific drunk driving accident. The presenter, who was driving, survived. His brother, who was in the passenger seat, did not.

Crash scene participants and students designated as the Living Dead later gathered in a local hotel for the evening. The idea was for the mock victims and their friends and families to experience what it is like to have someone they love disappear, including CHS alum Catherine Caporal.

Claremont police and a few psychologists were on hand to talk to the sequestered students about drunk driving and lead them in various activities.

“They showed us really graphic pictures of drunk driving accidents,” Junior Anita Mathias said. “Later, we had to write letters to our parents or friends as if we had died or to ask kids to stop drinking and driving. It was very emotional.

As is usually the case when teenagers gather together, there was also some fun. The students were treated to a fajita buffet, and participants like Anita got to meet some new people and bond with one another.

The next day, students at the high school attended a pretend funeral for the five students whose lives were claimed in the crash. Afterwards, the “dead” students were delighted to be reunited with their families and peers. 

CHS Assistant Principal of Student Services Clara Dehmer, who is in her first year at the high school, played a key role in orchestrating the event, along with longtime coordinators Julie and Connie Lannom. She noted the two-day activity was a team effort, involving the combined efforts of more than 200 people.

“I was so impressed with the caliber of the event,” she said. “The makeup was so real, the caskets with flowers on them. The experience was so realistic. If we save one life, we’ve done our job.”

 —Sarah Torribio


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