Sunday, 26 May 2024

'Every 15 Minutes': A story of death aims to save lives

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Hundreds of students and their parents attended the Wednesday "funeral" assembly at Lower Lake High School. Photo by Elizabeth Larson.

 


LOWER LAKE The story begins with a decision, which leads to an explosive crash of shrieking metal and broken human beings.


From there, the scene pans to rescuers retrieving crash victims, transporting them to hospitals or, in some cases, the morgue. Family notifications follow, with grieving parents, siblings and friends.


Over the past two days hundreds of Lower Lake High School students watched as the drama of "Every 15 Minutes" unfolded before their eyes in specially planned assemblies.


"Every 15 Minutes" is a staged reenactment of a fatal crash caused by driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. It attempts to prevent young people from making deadly – and preventable – mistakes when it comes to their lives and the lives of others.


The name behind the program, which began in the early 1990s, is the statistic that every 15 minutes a person in the United States dies as the result of an alcohol-related traffic collision.


Students are shown the broad, bloody swath of destruction that can follow the decision to drive drunk including the mangled wreckage of human flesh and dreams.


The presentation this week was the culmination of months' worth of work for California Highway Patrol Officer Adam Garcia and participating parents, teachers, law enforcement officials, businesses and students. Garcia said organizing the event began last September.


As part of "Every 15 Minutes," a number of students take part in recreating crash scenes, with others being separated from their class as the symbolic victims of the crashes that are said to claim the lives of people every quarter-hour.


On Tuesday, the mock collision took place. On Wednesday, it was time for the "funeral" assembly, held in the high school's gym, which was attended by students, parents, law enforcement and rescue officials.


The student victims were led in by the scythe-bearing Grim Reaper, who watched over them as they took their places away from their family and friends.

 

 

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The Grim Reaper oversaw a group of students chosen as victims in the two-day presentation. Photo by Elizabeth Larson.
 

 


The hour-and-a-half-long assembly included a video presentation of students at school having fun and talking about their plans for the future.


It then moved to a video of the Tuesday crash scene, with rescuers retrieving bloodied bodies from the wreckage. The crushing scenes that followed included parents identifying a dead child.


Making the story chillingly real is the participation of actual law enforcement and first responders everyone from fire personnel on the scene of the crash to jail officials who take part in booking a mock DUI suspect.


The mock DUI "suspect" this year was Kevin Freeman. The video showed him being tested for DUI before being summarily arrested and taken to the Lake County Jail, where he was put through the booking process and left in a cell.


Freeman also was show making a court appearance in Lake County Superior Court, wearing a black and white jumpsuit. He went before Judge Richard Martin, who listened as District Attorney Jon Hopkins read out the charges against Freeman. In the mock sentencing, Freeman received a 20-year, eight-month sentence for causing the death of several classmates.


Sheriff Rod Mitchell told the assembly that the two-day event was a labor of love, a gift from men and women who have seen the damage from DUI crashes and want to stop what he called “preventable” tragedies.


Mitchell recalled having to tell parents their children had died in a crash. It's the worst kind of duty, one he said he never forgets.


"Your time is precious," he told students. "Don't waste it."


Being back at Lower Lake High, he said, brought back memories of Lower Lake High student he tried to help resuscitate after a crash on Dam Road. The young man died.

 

 

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Parents looked on during the heart-rending event. Photo by Elizabeth Larson.
 

 


CHP Commander Lt. Dane Hayward was similarly moved by emotion during his presentation.


"The big question is, why are we here today?" he asked.


The answer was simple: Hayward said he never wants to have to see another grieving family or attend another funeral for a DUI crash victim.


"When one of you dies in a car crash, our community dies a little bit," he said, reminding students that they're the future.


"I don't want to add one more tragic story to my memory, not one more," said Hayward, his voice catching.


He said law enforcement cares about keeping young people safe. "Your parents love you. We love you."


The basic message, said Hayward, was not to drink or use drugs and drive a vehicle, or ride with anyone who does.


If the sheriff and commander's words weren't a solemn enough warning, the short speech offered by 20-year-old Joshua Farris and his mother, Laura, of Clearlake Park added a whole new dimension to the story of consequences.


On June 21, 2001, Farris and a friend got into a car with the friend's stepfather, who was high on methamphetamine and alcohol. They were hit broadside when the stepfather ran a stoplight.


Josh Farris died three times at the scene as rescuers were trying to revive him, his mother explained. Finally, he was placed in a body bag. Miraculously, he began to move again, and he was rushed to a hospital.


He was in a coma for six months, with his mother staying at his side.


Although Josh lived, he suffered serious injuries that make his walking and speech difficult, although he recalls what happened that night.


"Any one of you could be in his predicament," Laura Farris told the students.


She advised parents not to be angry if their children call them to ask for help if they've been drinking. Instead, she counseled, help them and talk about it later, when they're sober and will remember what you have to say.


Lower Lake High Principal Jeff Dixon told students they were all loved, valued and respected.


He shared the experience he had 12 year ago near Chico, when he and his family were hit by a drunk driver. Luckily, they walked away from the crash with no serious injuries.


But Dixon said he's had to announce a DUI-related death of a student, faculty member or community member one too many times, and it's a duty that he like Mitchell and Hayward doesn't want to repeat.


Driving under the influence is a choice with lifelong consequences, he said.


He urged his students to find alternatives to getting behind the wheel while impaired or riding with someone under the influence.


"Call your friends," he said. "Call your parents. Call me. I won't judge you. I want you to grow up."


Dixon asked students to take the event's message with them, and not just leave it behind once the assembly ended.


Garcia said afterwards that the two-day event reached about 800 local students. Each of the local high schools participates once every four years, he said, to make sure that all students experience it at least once during their high school career.


Laura Farris said after the event that four years ago she and Josh started participating in the "Every 15 Minutes," events. Their appearance Wednesday was the second they've made at Lower Lake, which is where he attended high school.


She said his message is an important one that she said is changing lives. After the presentation a young woman told Farris that she had taken the car keys away from her drunk sister as she was trying to leave in her car.


Looking at her son, Laura Farris said, "He did come back to life for a reason.”


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

 

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Pictures of some of the students chosen to portray fatalities during the "Every 15 Minutes" event. Photo by Elizabeth Larson.
 

 


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