Thursday morning didn’t go quite as planned at Escalon High School.
One by one, several students were ‘tapped out’ of class, the Grim Reaper entering classrooms and the names of students called, indicating they had been the victim of a drink driver.
Students from Escalon High, Vista High and Gateway Academy all took part in the program, titled Every 15 Minutes, a realistic depiction of a drunk driving accident.
All participants are selected ahead of time and their families involved as well, to give a true indication of the ripple effects a DUI crash can have on the community.
In this year’s scenario, involving juniors and seniors, one student was declared dead on the scene of the crash alongside the high school soccer fields on Escalon-Bellota Road. Another died at the hospital, a third was paralyzed. And the drunk driver was convicted of two counts of murder in the second degree, sentenced to 15 years to life on each count, to be served consecutively … meaning he would spend at least 30 years in prison.
The goal of the program is to present the facts about DUI, the dangers of drinking and driving, along with other distracted driving behaviors such as texting and driving and smoking marijuana and driving.
A cooperative effort, the Every 15 Minutes program brought together the CHP, San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department, Escalon Police, Escalon Fire, Escalon Community Ambulance, REACH air ambulance, school officials, community supporters and more, all to drive home the sobering statistics.
The mock crash was unveiled on Thursday morning, after the students had been taken out of class. Along with seven students involved in the crash scene, several more were in make-up as ‘The Living Dead’ and stood with the Grim Reaper a short distance away from the crash site, taking it all in, ghostly observers.
Narrator Chris Stevens, a retired longtime San Joaquin County Deputy Sheriff/Coroner, outlined the accident scene and provided commentary as first responders arrived, assessed the patients, the fire department used the Jaws of Life to free the paralyzed victim and the hearse arrived to take away the DOA student – senior Jack Fitzgerald. Senior Mya Beary was the student who, though not showing major injures on scene, was declared dead later at the hospital and senior Kaden Christensen was flown out on a helicopter, left paralyzed by the crash.
Suffering minor injuries was junior Eli Lattig, who was the driver of the car carrying both Fitzgerald and Beary, while the DUI driver was senior David Camacho. Christensen was a passenger in his car, as were seniors Natalie Cortes and Melanie Smith, both of whom had minor injuries.
Students watching from the stands set up alongside Escalon-Bellota Road kept quiet as the scene played out, many taken aback by the intensity of the staged scene.
After the wrap up of the accident scenario, with Camacho arrested, the minor injury patients reunited with their parents arriving on the scene, and the injured taken away by ambulance, Stevens told the students attending to “enjoy their lunch” and dismissed the crowd.
Several then made a stop by the makeshift cemetery adjacent to the quad on campus, where each student taking part had made a personal headstone.
Friday, the program continued, with a showing of a video that included not only the crash scene from Thursday but also what led up to the accident and the aftermath as families dealt with the injuries and unexpected deaths of two teens.
Two caskets were brought in to the new gym at EHS to begin the March 13 assembly, with a bagpipe player performing and then the video was shown. Following that, there were a number of guest speakers, including a Modesto man who was left in a coma for several weeks after being injured by a drunk driver. He also lost part of his left leg, has had multiple back surgeries and was blinded as a result of the accident.
Students attending the assembly heard from law enforcement officials, a judge, a prosecuting attorney and more, all helping to outline the emotional and financial cost of being involved in a DUI accident, especially those involving injury or death.
For the students involved, they were sequestered on Thursday following the accident scenario, having no contact with family or friends, taking part in a retreat. The parents had a separate retreat and part of that included writing letters to loved ones.
Clayton Ferreira was this year’s student chosen to read his letter.
“I love you all so much,” the senior said, adding thanks to his parents and siblings for helping make him into the person he is today. He also said hoped he had brought his closest friends some “light into your life” and was also apologetic to anyone he had ever “hurt, put down or disappointed.”
“I wish I could make amends,” Clayton said.
Parent representative Bob McCune then took the podium to read his letter to his son, Wyatt.
“Seventeen years is not enough time with you,” McCune said, his voice breaking. “I’m thankful I had 17 years with you and your amazing spirit, you lit up a room when you walked in … it hurts so much to think you’re gone.”
Addressing the students, Stevens said the program in Escalon was first put on in 2004.
“In the 40 years prior, Escalon High School lost an average of more than one student per year” to drunk driving crashes, Stevens said.
Since the program started, hosted every other year since 2004, the school has not lost a student in an alcohol related incident.
“Don’t screw up my record,” Stevens told the students, encouraging them to continue taking care of each other, being smart and taking away the keys from an intoxicated friend and making sure there is a designated driver if they do attend a party.
Following the program, students had the chance to reunite with their families, and several friends from the bleachers also came down to welcome ‘The Living Dead’ back to campus, sharing emotional hugs and more than a few tears.
“It was very emotional and eye-opening,” agreed Clayton Ferreira. “You see how in a second, life can change for anybody, you see how fragile and precious life can be.”
Cortes and Smith, part of the accident scenario, also agreed that it was an eye-opening experience, as the two fatal victims were in the car with the sober driver.
“I’ve learned not to take anything for granted,” Cortes said.
“It was tiring but it was good in the end,” Smith said, adding that the retreat was an emotionally exhausting experience, on top of the heightened emotions of the day.
Fatal victim Jack Fitzgerald added that, for him, it was a “life-changing” experience and he is appreciative of how impactful the program has been for EHS. “I could tell people were taking it seriously, that’s a good thing,” he said.
Mom Casey Scott, whose daughter Mya Scott was among The Living Dead, said it was a “very emotional” experience.
“You self-reflect, you think of the things that you missed out on saying,” she noted.
“It was pretty realistic and it puts you in that mind frame of if this really happened,” added Carrie Nash, whose son Garrett was also one of The Living Dead. “It was gut wrenching.”
For his part, Garrett said he feels it brought the student body together and his personal takeaway is that “I’ll never drink and drive.”
New coordinators for the program this year were Ryann Smith, Kathleen Gonzalez and Jessica Rozevink. All three were generally pleased with the final outcome of the program, which takes several months to coordinate. They also agree on the importance of continuing to host the Every 15 Minutes program for students.
“This is exactly what we have to do,” Ryann Smith said.