High school students experience realities of drunk driving aftermath

Students at Winters High School were led down an emotional and raw journey last week as senior Briana Simmons’ Capstone Project brought the “Every 15 Minutes” two-day program to reality.
Photo by Crystal Apilado/Winters Express Student Briana Simmons shares the personal reason why she chose the “Every 15 Minutes” program as her Senior Capstone Project.

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Students at Winters High School were led down an emotional and raw journey last week as senior Briana Simmons’ Capstone Project brought the “Every 15 Minutes” two-day program to reality. It was a gloomy gray day on Tuesday, March 5 when the Grim Reaper began to claim students and staff from classrooms to become one of the “living dead.” A police officer and counselor would accompany the “reaper” to read the individual’s obituary to the class. As this is happening the families of the “living dead” received a visit from the chaplain to notify them of their loved one’s death. By 2:20 p.m. that afternoon two WHS staff members and 19 students had been collected. The group stood in a solemn gathering by two vehicles, each filled with three WHS students, representing the aftermath of an alcohol-related accident. In front of the school, community members and families, the students and emergency personnel role-played a realistic and tragic scene. The crash portrayed the death and injuries of the students. Another student went through the motions of a field sobriety test before being arrested for driving under the influence. After the departure of the emergency vehicles, California Highway Patrol Public Information Officer Rodney Fitzhugh invited the observing students to gather around as he shared statistics of how often teens are involved in drunken driving accidents and how many die each day. He warned this could happen to any of them and that emergency personnel are haunted by them. “We are tired of going to these collisions,” Fitzhugh said. “There are things in our mind we wish we could erase.” Fitzhugh wanted students to understand that police officers want them to leave and return to their driveways in the same condition they leftalive. “This is not a game, nor is it a joke,” Fitzhugh earnesty warned. The audience went back to class, but the experience was not over for those who volunteered to participate. Similar to what happens with a real life fatality, the ripples of the experience do not stop at the edge of the high school campus. They flow past and touch the families whose children participated, community members who attended and even those who did not join in the experience of the program. Participating students were unable to communicate or see anyone for the remainder of the day, through the night and next morning. Their families had to identify their bodies or visit the hospital to learn the fate of their injured child. One family received a call that their child had been arrested for driving under the influence and had to attend a court hearing where the student was sentenced to 10 years in prison, despite previously having a clear record. That Tuesday some community members contacted the Express to report the tip of an accident and with fear that a child had been hit and injured. These community members were unaware that the program was happening. On the second day of the program, Wednesday, March 6, a funeral for the dead was held in the WHS Gym. A casket sat between two groups of chairs. The families of the living dead and student role players sat to one side as their departed loved ones sat across in the other. The student body was able to observe a video customized to WHS that portrayed the events that led up to the simulated drunk driving collision, giving them a closer look at what happened to students after and what families experienced following. Winters Police Department Detective David Gonzalez, who also serves as a School Resource Officer, said that at first he considered sharing with students about what it felt like for officers and emergency personnel to  see the faces of youth in these situations and to attempt to comfort their families. “It’s an emotional ride for all of us,” Det. Gonzalez said. “Even though it’s mock it’s hard to experience.” He closed saying that while everything at WHS will go back to normal and their peers will come back alive, the impact of the experience will never fade and that life is a sum of their choices. “After the thousands of dollars of fees and fines are paid and you served your jail and probation term, you will have an arrest on your record the remainder of your life, and that will affect your life,” he said. A few of the participating students took turns reading letters they had written to their parents. Each one began: “Dear Mom and Dad, every 15 minutes someone in the US dies or is seriously injured in an alcohol related incident. Today I died.” Rosie Kakutani’s voice wavered as she shared in the unfairness of not being able to experience having her father walk her down the aisle or to experience motherhood. “I will miss you more than words can describe,” Kakutani said. Parents also were able to read letters they had written to their children. Jennifer Spears stood with her husband as she read to her son Logan, who was sitting off to the side among the living dead, the experience of what it felt like to have their hearts ripped from their bodies at the news of his death. “We thought hearing the news that you were killed in an accident was the worst, but it was actually the hardest telling your sister,” Spears said. “To say our children are our world is an understatement. We are not sure how to go on without you.” Guest speaker Helen Pimental shared her personal story from the other side of the situation for the first time to a public audience in hopes of making a difference to Winters students. The gymnasium was silent as she shared  how after the accident the hospital chaplain stood silently as her parents delivered devastating news. “….As my parents told me that my best friend died in the car accident, instantly. That I was driving,” she said. Pimental shared every detail of her life’s struggles since from the reality of trying to write you were convicted of a “misdemeanor manslaughter” when trying to apply for a job, of emotional struggles and the reality of prison time in today’s time. “I was booked in the hospital because of my injuries and I was charged with misdemeanor manslaughter. Thirty years ago was a little bit different than it is today. The laws are a lot harder today. You will go to jail,” she said. “Notes from her family to the judge kept me out of prison. But I have kept myself in my own prison since the day of my accident.” Sharing her story is part of her healing, as well as an attempt to make an impact. “And I’m hoping that by being here today keeps you from being in the position that I was in on that night. I know we can’t tell you, ‘Do not drink.’ But if you do decide to make that choice, and it is a choice, Do not drive. Do not get into a vehicle,” Pimental said. “If you love yourself and you love your best friends you will never ever put yourselves in that position. Please think smarter.” Concluding the event Simmons shared that this specific project means more to her because of her own personal experience of her mother’s death from the result of a driver who was under the influence of medication. She shared the three people involved in the accident all had children and families who loved and cared about them. She said she too hoped sharing how her life was impacted by the choice of someone else to drive under the influence would help to make a difference in the choices her peers may one day face. “Everyone in the accident died that day,” Simmons said. “This is a strong example that driving under the influence of any substance is never okay, not ever.” The “Every 15 Minutes” program is not a new experience in Winters, and unfortunately neither are accidents caused by drivers under the influence. The goal of the “Every 15 Minutes” program is hope that in communities that experience it the local agencies and citizens will work together to create a common goal to reduce alcohol, drug and distracted driving related incidents through preventative strategies. Learn more about about the “Every 15 Minutes” program at the CHP website under Programs & Services, Youth Programs, Every 15 Minutes. The WHS Every 15 Minutes 2019 video can be viewed on the WHS Facebook page at facebook.com/WintersHS.]]>

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