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A Lesson of Death

"Every 15 Minutes" is a program designed to give teenagers a real-life view into drunk driving death.

Here's how the program's supposed to run, according to

During the first day events the "Grim Reaper" calls students who have been selected from a cross-section of the entire student body out of class. One student is removed from class every 15 minutes. A police officer will immediately enter the classroom to read an obituary, which has been written by the "dead" student's parent(s), explaining the circumstances of their classmate's demise and the contributions the student has made to the school and the community. A few minutes later, the student will return to class as the "living dead," complete with white face make-up, a coroner's tag, and a black Every 15 Minutes T-shirt. From that point on "victims" will not speak or interact with other students for the remainder of the school day.

At El Camino High School in Oceanside, Calif., the program ran quite differently. According to ABC News, "A uniformed police officer walked into several classrooms and somberly announced that fellow students had been killed in a drunken driving accident. After reading a brief eulogy, the officer placed a rose on the deceased student's seat and left the room."

Some students became so hysterical that teachers let them in on the secret, the Associated Press reported: The students weren't really dead. Others learned the truth at an assembly later in the day. And while school officials thought they could control the program from start to finish, they didn't fully anticipate the power of teens with cellphones. Word spread quickly through the school that one of the teen "actresses" was dead after her sister -- who knew about the program -- sent text messages to friends saying her sibling had been killed. Even the principal's secretary was confused, thinking there had been a horrific coincidence, the AP said.

"They were traumatized, but we wanted them to be traumatized," guidance counselor Lori Tauber told the AP. "That's how they get the message."

Are hoaxes like these really the best way to teach kids about the consequences of drunk driving? If this were your child's high school, how would you have reacted?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  June 17, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Teens
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"Are hoaxes like these really the best way to teach kids about the consequences of drunk driving?"

Studies say No.
These teachers and other education professionals should know better. Why don't they?

Posted by: What else is new? | June 17, 2008 7:09 AM | Report abuse

This seems like it would do more harm than good if done the way that it is reported from the school in Cali. Maybe if done the way it is advertised, it might have some positive effect. I'd be interested in hearing the professional opinion of a psychiatrist.

I think if they planned something like this at my son's school, I would want to know the details beforehand.

I think straight talk with kids and living a good example is a much better way to teach them about drinking and driving as well as other important life lessons.

Posted by: good grief | June 17, 2008 7:19 AM | Report abuse

I think these theatrics are completely inappropriate. Studies show teens have a pretty good perception of the risks of risky behaviour. It turns out that while they can pretty well gauge the downside risk, they tend to overestimate the upside value of these behaviors. In other words, while they know there is a danger to drunk driving or driving with an impaired driver, peer pressure to go along with their friends is very powerful. Thus, they overestimate the importance of not criticizing their friends or looking like a dweeb and make the wrong choice. Teens wanting demonstrate eternal love and total trust to their boyfriend/girlfriend may, even fully aware of the risks, have unprotected sex. Adults with years of experience know that true friendship and love does not mean risking your life or your future. How do we teach teens this?

Posted by: samclare | June 17, 2008 7:50 AM | Report abuse

I agree with samclare. appropriate or not i don't think it works. a local high school did the whole shebang with the car crash, fire, made up students lying on the grass and so forth and the following weekend a party was broken up with 80 kids, beer, liquor and the parents AT HOME.

Posted by: NALL92 | June 17, 2008 8:02 AM | Report abuse

Good question Samclare. I don't know the answer myself but have read a few things that made sense to me. First, I've heard that building self-esteem and confidence at a young age helps kids resist peer pressure later but not completely, of course. I think the grimreaper program, as intended, might have some value. The kids would not be traumatized because they would know their classmates are not really dead but it could illustrate the message better than just a talk. Or, it could just be viewed as a silly theatrical exercise, not sure.

I've also read that you need to talk to your kids, talk to your kids, talk to your kids, when they are teens and starting to drive. Although they may not appear to listen, they hear. I also read that parents need to not be afraid to be the uncool parent who asks a lot of questions about the party -- who is going; how are you getting there; will there be a parent there and maybe even calling to make sure. The fact is even if a parent is there some parents allow kids to drink in their homes and then let all the kids sleep over so no one drives. I can see the logic in this practice but it's not something I plan to do. I think it sends the wrong message and blurs the lines.

Posted by: Pt Fed Mof2 | June 17, 2008 8:02 AM | Report abuse

Hey, I'd say that whatever works should be given a try. I'd rather have a hysterical student for 15 minutes instead of an ACTUAL dead one.

Posted by: changing faces | June 17, 2008 8:11 AM | Report abuse

Savage torture and executions don't deter ALL criminals. Neither does this method. Especially with KIDS.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 17, 2008 8:18 AM | Report abuse

I remember participating in these programs in high school. I wasn't a partier or a drinker in high school but even then I didn't think these programs had much impact on either myself or my peers. We knew the consequences and could recite them better than the words to the fight song or alma mater. The kids who wanted to drink drank anyways and in this aspect I agree with samclare. Are the theatrics inappropriate? I don't think so but I don't think they make that much of an impact either.

Posted by: toomuchtv | June 17, 2008 8:39 AM | Report abuse

All this exercise taught the students is that "People in authority will lie to you to make you alter your behavior." In the grand scheme of things, that's a good cautionary lesson to learn, but I can't imagine that it's what the school intended.

Posted by: tomtildrum | June 17, 2008 8:53 AM | Report abuse

toomuchtv: I disagree. In high school, we were told over and over again what the dangers of drinking and driving were - MADD/SADD was getting popular, etc. So when we'd go drinking, the person who drove NEVER drank. Just didn't - cause we knew the dangers.

When I was in college with older (and I mean - not 'normal' college aged students, i.e., those in their late 20s early 30s) they drank and drove WAY more than anyone I'd ever met. As in, the education had been aimed at teens, and teens got the message, but those older somehow hadn't.

Posted by: atlmom | June 17, 2008 9:10 AM | Report abuse

Yeah, sure, go for it. In fact, I think some of them should be made to watch actual autopsies. Especially with drug overdoses. Autopsies for drunk driving deaths would work, too. These kids have to be hit in the head with a 2x4 to get the message through.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 17, 2008 9:45 AM | Report abuse

MADD, in conjunction with the state police and the school board, parked a violently mangled car in which 3 teens had died in a DUI accident, on the front lawn of our school for a month back in 1985. Scared the hell out of us. Near as I could tell, no one I knew drove drunk the rest of that year... Like it or not, fear is a powerful motivator.

Posted by: two terrific boys | June 17, 2008 9:51 AM | Report abuse

The rose on the seat bit and the cop coming in is a little bit much, but my school did the whole "every 15 minutes a kid gets up and comes back as the 'living dead'" thing and it really was kind of shocking to see *that* many people walking around like that. Not sure how effective it was, really; I'm in my 20s and I know my bunch is good about DD'ing and the DD not drinking, but I don't know if that stems from this program or not.

They also usually parked a totalled car (at least theoretically from a drunk-driving incident) in the school parking lot for a week or so before Homecoming and Prom, as a cautionary tale.

I didn't drink in high school, but I think that was more because I knew my parents would kill me than stuff the school did (although I do think raising awareness like this is a good thing).

Posted by: Anonymous | June 17, 2008 9:52 AM | Report abuse

One of my sister's teachers did something like this in junior high- though I forget the specifics- and for the rest of the month my sister didn't believe anything she said, doubting the coursework, curriculum, and my mother pulled her from the class after the first quarter. Teachers who lie to kids on purpose should be fired.

Posted by: DCer | June 17, 2008 9:52 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Tomtildrum - this little drama shows kids that people in authority will lie to you.

I had two acquaintances die in a drunk driving accident when I was in Jr. High. The fiery crash was near my house and I remember hearing the sirens and wondering what was up.

It was a very sad thing as was the funeral that we all got the day off of school to attend.

The little sister of the girl who died displayed a huge change in behavior afterwards -- her mother paid a lot more notice to what she was doing and who she was doing it with.

I think that speaks to what really works - and that's parents who talk about drunk driving all the time, and monitor who is doing what with whom.

Posted by: RoseG | June 17, 2008 9:56 AM | Report abuse

A total of six seniors from a local high school died in 3 drunk driving accidents last year. Horrifying. Kids need to be scared straight, and parents need to take note. You can't rewind death.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | June 17, 2008 10:09 AM | Report abuse

it seems that in our schools, teachers have lost their minds. playing survivor with autistic kids, having sex with students, hoaxes like this. Do they live in a bubble or what? Of course you shouldn't lie to people. Makes me want to homeschool my kid

Posted by: duh | June 17, 2008 10:15 AM | Report abuse

Do the theatrics bother me? No, they don't. I don't know how effective this would be, but kids need to get the message. When I was in high school, we had to watch films in driver's ed of actual accidents caused by drunk drivers. Bodies were still in the cars, etc. Pretty gruesome stuff.

Of course, so was the funeral for two of my sister's best friends, who were killed by a drunk driver going the wrong way on Interstate 12. Head-on; of course the drunk driver survived while the two girls in the car he hit died. And it was at least his sixth drunk-driving offense, but he was a friend of the judge, so he was made to pay a small fine and promise never to do it again.

Posted by: ArmyBrat | June 17, 2008 10:54 AM | Report abuse

Duh: People lie all the time. Just look at the political campaign being run right now. What about computer generated images in movies. That's lying. Do you think Harry Potter is really flying in that game of Quidditch? What about our elected officials who cheat on their wives -- they took a vow in front of a minister or priest 'forsaking all others.'

Nothing wrong with a little theatrics to get the message across.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 17, 2008 11:09 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: Anonymous | June 17, 2008 11:52 AM | Report abuse

I doubt the effectiveness. When I was in high school, a drunk driver hit the vehicle I was riding in and I was put in a coma for 8 days and in the hospital for 3 1/2 weeks. The first time I went out after returning to school, friends approached me - with beer in hand - and asked if I wanted to ride with them to a cool party. Kids are amazing in feeling that bad things happen to other people.

Posted by: Elizabeth | June 17, 2008 12:43 PM | Report abuse

Do you think Harry Potter is really flying in that game of Quidditch?

Did a teacher read that book to you claiming it was really happening and you believed it was really happening? That's basically what you just wrote.

Lying is a sin people and it's a sin for a reason.

Posted by: DCer | June 17, 2008 1:01 PM | Report abuse

I think some kids might have gotten a message - either the people-in-authority-lie message, or the don't drink-and-drive message.

My older son will be turning 16 this week. He's doing his driver education this summer. He's a total law-and-order follow-the-rules type, probably because of the autism. He wouldn't have benefitted from either the normal program or the enhanced one. He already avoids alcohol because he's too young to drink and it's against the law.

Sometimes, having a kid with autism is an advantage, and I have to revel in those moments - sorry!

His little brother is 11, and he's the one who will challenge ever rule, question all authority, and make up his own mind - right or wrong. From this incident, he'd have learned the liars message, and it would only have reenforced his go-his-own-way, make-his-own-rules personality, not made him more careful.

But I think any program is going to have similar results - some kids will get it, some kids won't need it, and some kids will get some other lesson that wasn't intended.

Kids are all different. Nothing will work with all of them. It's important to use multiple, different approaches, and even more important to look at what unintended messages and lessons some kids take away.

Posted by: Sue | June 17, 2008 1:26 PM | Report abuse

DCer: No, bonehead, that's not what I said. Computer generated images, special effects, and the like are lying just as much as any other theatrics. I did not say a teacher read me the story. Get a grip. Learn to read what is written and stop twisting things around.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 17, 2008 1:33 PM | Report abuse

I have to agree that while I don't see anything really wrong with this as long as the families are aware ahead of time, I don't know that it will have its desired effect.

Education and supervised exploration with alcohol IMO really is the way to go. And insane penalties for DUI.

Posted by: Liz D | June 17, 2008 2:10 PM | Report abuse

"Sometimes, having a kid with autism is an advantage, and I have to revel in those moments - sorry!"

Oh, brother!

Posted by: What a bore | June 17, 2008 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Voluntary suspension of disbelief in order to be entertained is not "lying." Lying is a deliberate deviation from the facts in order to deceive someone (someone else or yourself). Writers of fiction and makers or movies are not deceiving you - there is no claim that these works are factual. That is why it's called fiction.

Posted by: what a goofball | June 17, 2008 2:35 PM | Report abuse

Hey, Bore,

Do you have a kid with a severe, life-long disability? Do you have to deal with all the things your kid can't do, every single day of the kid's life? Do you ever wonder if your kid is going to live out his adult life (after you're gone) in some sort of institution?

Please excuse me for looking for, and finding, the rare positive in my child's disability. Especially, please excuse me for publicly celebrating those few-and-far-between moments. I'm not going to stop, and if it's so boring for you just don't read it. If our family doesn't celebrate everything we can find worth celebrating, we do a huge disservice to our own mental wellbeing, and more important, to our boy's.

Posted by: Sue | June 17, 2008 2:41 PM | Report abuse

"Especially, please excuse me for publicly celebrating those few-and-far-between moments. I'm not going to stop, and if it's so boring for you just don't read it."

Johnny-one-notes are crashing bores. I can identify your long winded posts fairly quickly and scroll, baby scroll.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 17, 2008 2:48 PM | Report abuse

"Kids are all different. Nothing will work with all of them. It's important to use multiple, different approaches, and even more important to look at what unintended messages and lessons some kids take away."

This coming from a wiccan "witch".....

Posted by: i'm with bore | June 17, 2008 2:54 PM | Report abuse

I can identify your long winded posts fairly quickly and scroll, baby scroll.

Posted by: | June 17, 2008 2:48 PM

So you say... But it's not what you do, hmmm. Is the phrase, "Cognitive Disonance" to be found in your psychiatric files?

Posted by: Sue | June 17, 2008 3:05 PM | Report abuse

" Is the phrase, "Cognitive Disonance" to be found in your psychiatric files?"

Dunno. AB stole my files...

Posted by: Anonymous | June 17, 2008 3:10 PM | Report abuse

This coming from a wiccan "witch".....

Posted by: i'm with bore | June 17, 2008 2:54 PM

Nice. Ad hominem attack - couldn't find anything of substance in the topic to comment on or criticize?

By the way, names of religions are capitalized in standard English usage - Christian, not christian; Islam, not islam; Wicca or Wiccan, etc.

And if you are some sort of fundagelical Christian who thinks burning witches at the stake was a good idea and should be brought back, would you be willing to meet face-to-face and discuss it? You pick the time, and I'll pick the place - outside the lion's cage at the San Francisco Zoo. (wink)

Posted by: Sue | June 17, 2008 3:14 PM | Report abuse

"Nice. Ad hominem attack - couldn't find anything of substance in the topic to comment on or criticize?"

Why did you, with your genetic background breed with your husband, with his genetic background?

Did you two reasonably expect that all your kids would be normal??

Posted by: Anonymous | June 17, 2008 3:26 PM | Report abuse

"And if you are some sort of fundagelical Christian who thinks burning witches at the stake was a good idea and should be brought back, would you be willing to meet face-to-face and discuss it?"

Can't you cast a long distance spell? Why meet at all?

Posted by: Pyewacket | June 17, 2008 3:31 PM | Report abuse

People go into the movie knowing the special effects aren't real. The students did not go into school knowing the deaths were staged. It undermines the trust there should be between students and the school. Not to mention panic it could cause with parents being text messaged that their children died in a car accident. It seems like poor judgement to teach children that manufacturing theatrics like this is an effective way to educate. It would be equally as absurd for students to bring fake weapons to school and stage a mass killing to teach the school that there are vulnerabilities in its security. But this sort of exercise seems to suggest that such a hoax would be an appropriate educational tool.

Posted by: Cliff | June 17, 2008 3:47 PM | Report abuse

I suggested a discussion. What would a spell be good for? Are you thinking I would want to curse you or something?

"Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill:
And it harm none, do what you will."

I don't do spells to harm anyone, (or anything) ever. It's against the moral code of my religion. You've been watching too many horror movies, and can't tell the difference between Hollywood fantasies, and real people and religions. If you want to attack my religion, you'll need to learn something about it first.

And why would you think anyone would want to harm you at all? The clinical term for that would be "paranoia". Because you want to harm me, maybe? That's called "projection".

Hey, this is kind of fun - amateur psychiatric diagnosis of strangers on a blog. Too bad I don't have time for any more patients today.

I was checking back because today's topic is very interesting to me and my family, but the trolls have highjacked the thread and it's way past time I stopped feeding them.

Posted by: Sue | June 17, 2008 4:02 PM | Report abuse

i think that there is no one size fits all method for teaching people anything. as an adult i know it's bad & illegal to drive drunk. i haven't driven drunk in probably 15 years but the problem is that alcohol lowers your ability to reason. the last time i drove drunk i will say that it seemed like a good idea at the time. add to that the teenagers belief that it will never happen to them plus their general lack of experience & judgement and you have teenage (and adult) drunk drivers.

Posted by: quark | June 17, 2008 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Having worked as an EMT on an ambulance, I can't count the number of drunk drivers of all ages we've scraped off the pavement or put into a Hare traction splint for compound fractures. The most seriously injured aren't always the drunks -- a lot of innocent people are injured, and worse, because of somebody's lack of good judgment. Of course, when the parents of the drunk-driving teens are notified, they always deny their kid was wrong or had anything to do with it.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 17, 2008 4:54 PM | Report abuse

When I send my child to school I don't do it for him to be "scared straight" by some stunt. I'd be pretty upset.

I would, however, be happy for him to meet with real people who had suffered due to drunk driving.

I think most teens are able to work the difference out. The MADD thing with the mangled car likely worked because it was a real car. That makes way more sense to me than the stunt either as originally designed or as described this one time.

Posted by: Shandra | June 17, 2008 9:48 PM | Report abuse

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