Reality hits students hard
By Tim Leeds
"I can't move It hurts I can't feel my legs somebody please help me," Levi Wendland said over and over from the passenger seat of a wrecked Chevrolet pickup.
Wendland, a junior at Blue Sky School, was the lucky one. Roald Aageson, also a Blue Sky junior, was pulled from a wrecked Renault and pronounced dead at the scene.
Both were lucky. The wreck at Rudyard Sept. 26 was a simulation. The death notices of eight other students in alcohol-related accidents announced at Blue Sky School were also not real but part of the Every 15 Minutes program put on for Blue Sky, J-I and KG junior high and high school students.
"It was kind of scary, being there, thinking, What if it were real?'" Blue Sky freshman Morgan Gatzmeier said.
Gatzmeier was one of the walking dead, students pulled from class by Deena Wendland dressed as the Grim Reaper, while Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera and Montana Highway Patrol officer Steve Baiamonte announced they had been killed in an alcohol-related accident.
The student returned, with white face makeup, a black Every 15 Minutes T-shirt and a coroner's tag, and Szudera and Baiamonte read their obituary while the Rev. Joe Diekhans looked on. The walking dead student could not communicate with classmates for the rest of the day.
The event followed the guidelines of Every 15 Minutes, a nonprofit organization that educates students about the consequences of drinking and driving. The organization is named for a 1991 statistic someone died as the result of an alcohol-related accident in the United States every 15 minutes. It grew out of many other programs sponsored by communities and organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Students Against Drunk Driving, executive director Dean Wilson said.
Wilson, a police officer in Bethlehem, Pa., said the bottom line is that experience is the best teacher. But, "when you're dealing with alcohol and driving, experience is not the teacher of choice."
The program continues to grow, he said, with more communities holding the event every year.
The drama intensified at 12:30 p.m. After students from J-I and KG arrived, they joined the Blue Sky students and filed out to the "dust bowl," the vacant lot south of the school. The Renault and Chevrolet, covered by blue tarps and containing the students playing the accident victims, were in the middle of the lot.
Blue Sky eighth-graders Jourdan Han and Courtney Wendland discovered the wreck, and were soon joined by freshman Maya Aageson, the sister of Roald Aageson, the only fatality of the wreck. J-I senior Laine Lybeck, playing Aageson's mother, arrived later.
The trio tried to assess the seriousness of the injuries of the students in their vehicles, and their 9-1-1 call soon brought Szudera, Baiamonte, the Rudyard Volunteer Fire Department and an ambulance with the Hi-Line Emergency Medical Service team.
Students could be heard joking and laughing in the background at first. As the law enforcement officers and EMS personnel worked, pronouncing Roald Aageson dead, checking the survivors and interviewing the driver of the pickup, KG junior Mandy Rambo, and collecting beer bottles and empty beer cases, the background noise dropped as the Grim Reaper wandered around the scene.
By the time the emergency workers were cutting the top off the Renault to free the driver, J-I sophomore Craig Miller, little to no sound interrupted the noise from the electric saws.
After Miller, Wendland and Rambo were loaded into the ambulance Aageson was loaded into the Rockman Funeral Chapel hearse, driven by Rlynn Rockman everyone returned to the school.
Rambo pleads guilty
Imagine nine high school students killed in separate auto-related accidents. Imagine the death notices, obituaries, funerals and trials and sentencing. Now imagine them compressed into part of one school day.
The students at Blue Sky, KG and J-I schools went through exactly that during the Every 15 Minutes program.
"I didn't mean to hit him. He was my friend. I didn't mean to hurt him. I didn't mean to kill him. I'm so sorry," Mandy Rambo, dressed in a red Hill County Detention Center jumpsuit and wearing wrist and ankle shackles, said at her trial.
Rambo pleaded guilty to negligent homicide, two counts of vehicular assault and first- offense driving under the influence in a mock court held by retired Justice of the Peace Carol Chagnon.
"I don't mean to sound cruel, but I hear that from all of them," Chagnon replied to Rambo. "I'm really sorry, but that was your choice."
Rambo faced 10 years in the state prison, Chagnon said, but her self-imposed sentence was much worse.
"You've given yourself a life sentence because you're going to have to live with this the rest of your life," Chagnon said. "Do you think you're going to able to cope with that?"
"I don't know," Rambo said.
It's impossible to say how long the feeling of loss in the community would last, Chagnon told Rambo. For some people, it could last a lifetime. For others, it's gone by the next weekend, when they say, "I really miss Joe. Let's go have a kegger," she said. "Then it starts all over again."
Maybe it would be different in this case, she added.
"I hope everybody in the community remembers. I hope they never forget," she said.
Before Szudera and Baiamonte led Rambo out, Chagnon bid her farewell.
"Good luck to you, young lady. I wish you well I wish you very, very, well and I hope everyone remembers this fateful day."
Aageson funeral held
Roald Aageson of Hingham, a junior at Blue Sky School, died in an alcohol-related accident Sept. 26. He attended his funeral, conducted by the Revs. Tim Singleton and Joe Diekhans, later that day.
Aageson's and the other "deaths" announced to drive home the consequences of drinking and driving during the Every 15 Minutes program culminated in the funeral. Before the service, a letter Aageson had written to his parents was read, as was a letter his parents wrote to him telling of the lost opportunities caused by his death.
Singleton's sermon echoed the letters.
"For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven," he read from Ecclesiastes 3.
But Aageson's time to die came prematurely, Singleton said. Many of the times he could have spent are now gone.
"Because of a foolish choice by a couple of his peers to drink and get behind the wheel of an automobile, he has been robbed of those times," Singleton said.
Alcohol-related accidents and deaths are real, not simulated, Szudera told the assembly after the funeral.
"I've been in law enforcement more than 29 years and I've seen what you saw today so many times. It does happen and it happens quick," he said.
And underage drinking happens a lot, he added. The evidence room at the Hill County Justice Center has four beer kegs, about 10 cases of beer and four fifths of alcohol confiscated from underage parties over the last year, he said. His office wrote more than 100 tickets for minor in possession of alcohol.
"Probably 200 ran and were not caught," he said. "The natural consequences will catch them sooner or later."
Blue Sky Superintendent Terry Grant read a poem to the group, a poem recounting what a person killed by a drunken driver might say:
"The other guy is drunk, Mom, and now I'm the one who will pay. I didn't drink and drive, Mom, so why am I the one to die."
Grant said he's read the poem to students many times, but it's still difficult for him to read it. Later he recounted one of the reasons. He had to travel to Alaska to bury his father, killed by a drunken driver with four previous DUI convictions.
The Every 15 Minutes program "affected me stronger than I thought it would," he said after the funeral. "I hope it has its intent and makes some kids think about choices."
Some students who participated in the program or watched it said it did make them think. Rambo said her cousin died in an alcohol-related accident. Playing the driver brought that back.
"It was hard. It was very, very hard," she said.
Blue Sky senior Becky Kimmet said the event made her realize how much she would miss anyone killed in an accident, and how much the dead teens would be missed.
"It just freaked me out, basically," Kimmet said.
Mitchell McKinley, a senior at Blue Sky, was one of the walking dead. He said some students didn't seem to take the event very seriously. Others, like himself, did.
"It kind of brings to reality the consequences of what you can do. You never realize how serious it is," he said.
Baiamonte said the simulated wreck, as real as it seemed, was not close to the real experience.
"It was just a small representation of what really happens the emotions, the screaming, the pain," he said.
But it did seem to have its desired effect on some students, he added.
"Whether this seems just put on," he said, "I notice some people seem to be taking it very hard. Maybe they'll think twice about drinking."
Deena Wendland took over the role of the Grim Reaper for the afternoon. Rose Spinler played the part in the morning.
Wendland said she thinks the program worked on some.
"I know we've hit a few. I hope we hit a few more," she said.
Registered nurse Jaye Dee Han of Rudyard, an organizer of the event, said there was a lot of support to put it on.
"There are 54 names involved that I'll be writing thank-yous to," she said.
Many sources provided money to fund the program, she said. Hill County granted $428 from a fund in the Hill County Juvenile Probation office, the Blue Sky Parent-Teacher Organization donated $200, Havre Distributors donated $100 and the employees of the Havre Post Office chipped in $25 from their pop fund.
That money bought the training video and brochure from Every 15 Minutes, bought the T-shirts and lanyards given to the students who participated, paid for mailings and for gas to haul the vehicles to the school for the crash simulation, Han said. M&M Salvage donated the Renault, and Aaron and Linda Boehm donated the Chevrolet pickup.
Most of the students Han approached to participate in the activities agreed right away, although some parents, and students, turned her down. They were uncomfortable with the idea, she said.
She hopes Blue Sky's activity will start a trend. Schools and communities have had anti-drunken driving activities before, but Blue Sky is the first to use Every 15 Minutes, she said.
"I'm really hoping other schools around the state follow our example," Han said.
She's already had some response. The Browning school district has contacted her to see how the program worked. She referred the callers to the organization's Web site and offered her help if they need it.
"We need to tell the communities around here that we're interested in making a change around here, trying desperately to save some lives," she said.
After Rambo's mock trial, Chagnon told the students not to take the program lightly.
"I do hope you all realize someone you know could be gone that quickly," she said. "But I look at all of you which one will it be?"