Simulation brings home reality of DUI
In a little less than three hours on Tuesday, Havre High School students saw five fellow students pulled from a bloody car wreck caused by alcohol. They saw one student arrested and convicted of negligent homicide and negligent vehicular assault, and they attended the funeral of another.
Afterward the handcuffs were taken off, the face paint cleaned up and the casket - empty - taken back to the funeral home. The convict returned to sixth-period class.
But at least one part of the demonstration - part of Every 15 Minutes, a national campaign to prevent underage drinking and driving - was not staged.
"My chair is not a prop today," said HHS alumna Cindy Kafka, sitting in her wheelchair on stage in the HHS auditorium. "It's the real thing. And I thank God for my life," she said.
Often pausing to compose herself, Kafka read the newspaper article describing the 1979 one-car wreck that claimed the lives of three HHS seniors during homecoming week and left Kafka permanently paralyzed. Kafka was also a senior at the time. She said today that all the occupants of the car had been drinking.
"It has taken me 24 years - this year was the first year ... that I have felt that I could face saying goodbye to my friends," Kafka told the assembly, recalling her recent visit to their graves.
Kafka told students that if they multiplied the emotions they felt on Tuesday by 10,000, it still wouldn't equal the emotional impact of a real accident.
"You're getting to an age now when you can make the right decisions," she said.
Every 15 Minutes tries to prevent underage drinking and driving by giving students a taste of the possible consequences of their actions. The Safe Kids, Safe Communities Coalition has been planning the event at Havre High for about nine months. Organizer Wanda Allison hopes it helps ensure that Tuesday's wreck is the only one HHS students experience in this year.
"We intentionally did it homecoming week because it's best doing it around some event that's more suggestive of drinking and driving," Allison said.
She said she doesn't have statistics on the program's effectiveness, but that after the program was put on in Rudyard last year for students from several schools across the Hi-Line, student feedback suggested the program made them think twice about getting behind the wheel after drinking, even months after the demonstration.
HHS senior Shane Barrett, 17, had the role of the drunken driver in the mock accident. He was given a breath test and handcuffed at the scene. Barrett said he thinks kids don't take the risks of drunken driving seriously enough.
"There's a lot of kids that have had MIPs I go to school with and I think a lot of people think of it as a joke," Barrett said, standing backstage in a bright orange inmate's jumpsuit before being handcuffed and led into the auditorium for his mock trial. "I don't think they realize they could be killed."
Kirsten Renee, 15, said drinking and driving among her peers is common.
"If people paid you for coming to get them - if you were a designated driver - you'd be rich," Renee said. "You'd make millions."
"And it's every weekend, not just special occasions," added Kim Chaney, 15, sitting on the grass in front of HHS after the mock accident. She said she thinks Tuesday's program will affect many of the students who drink and drive.
To give the program a stamp of authenticity, a host of local professionals and organizations participated, including local law enforcement and emergency medical technicians, the Holland and Bonine Funeral Home, Hill County Justice of the Peace Terry Stoppa, attorney Brian Lilletvedt, County Attorney Cyndee Peterson and the Havre Ministerial Association.
"If it gets even one kid to stop and think before they get themselves into a situation, it's worth the effort," said LuAnn McLain, another event organizer.
The reactions of students who saw the demonstration suggest it might work.
"It was pretty graphic," said Tony Filler, 13, referring to the car wreck.
"There was blood on the windows and everything," he said, adding that he thought it was important to show what a real wreck would look like.
Filler, an eighth-grader, helped paint the faces of students who were pulled out of class Tuesday morning - one every 15 minutes - ostensible victims of a drunken driver. The students, faces painted white, returned to class after a death announcement was read to their class, but they remained silent for the rest of the morning.
"It makes you think. It's kind of scary," said HHS sophomore Amanda Kenowski, 15. "If I got drunk, I wouldn't drive."
Have Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller said school officials were paying close attention Tuesday to see what students' reactions were. He added that the students he saw were serious and somber.
"Overall they were pretty much very solemn," she said. "They seemed to take it pretty seriously." She added that she was pleased with the number of students who stopped to watch the mock accident, because it happened during their lunch period.
HHS freshman Christen Kittelson, 14, had the role of a passenger in the drunken driver's car. During the simulation, she was ticketed with purchase or possession of an intoxicant by a minor after the accident.
"It was just sort of hard to imagine how it could be real," Kittelson said, leaning on a coffin backstage, a bruise still painted on her cheek from the accident. Still, she said, the presentation had an effect.
"It just sort of makes you realize that one drink isn't as important as one life," she said.
The name of the program came from a 1991 statistic: Someone in the United States died as a result of an alcohol-related collision every 15 minutes, on average.
On the Net: Every 15 Minutes: http://www.every15minutes.com