Woodland High School students act dead for a day to raise awareness for drunk driving

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Dozens of seniors at Woodland High School volunteered to act dead for a day to raise awareness for drunk driving through the Every 15 Minutes program run by local law enforcement agencies including the Cowlitz County Sheriff's Department and City of Woodland's Police Department.

WHS Seniors Karin Taylor, Grace Adams, Jessica Flanagan, and Jared Cloud were among dozens who participated in the Every 15 Minutes Program. Also pictured: Senior Chaplain Marion Gambaro and Program Coordinator Samantha Thompson
WHS Seniors Karin Taylor, Grace Adams, Jessica Flanagan, and Jared Cloud were among dozens who participated in the Every 15 Minutes Program. Also pictured: Senior Chaplain Marion Gambaro and Program Coordinator Samantha Thompson 

As part of the program, a law enforcement chaplain along with a volunteer dressed as the Angel of Death visit classrooms throughout a school day, taking students who volunteered to participate in the program from their class every 15 minutes to represent the 1996 national statistic of one person dying from a drunk driving accident every 15 minutes. As of 2015, that statistic has dropped to one death every 51 minutes thanks, in part, to drunk driving awareness programs like Every 15 Minutes.

Senior Chaplain Mario Gambaro along with Sheriff's Deputy Ryan Planked (dressed as the Angel of Death) visit a classroom to take students from the class.
Senior Chaplain Mario Gambaro along with Sheriff's Deputy Ryan Planked (dressed as the Angel of Death) visit a classroom to take students from the class. 

When the chaplain and Angel of Death visit a classroom, the chaplain announces to the class that certain students in the class died in a realistic, yet fictitious, accident on the way to school. The students are then taken from class and made up to look as if they are dead by makeup artists, also wearing black hoods for the rest of the day. The participating students are not permitted to speak to any "living" student for the remainder of the school day to symbolize what life would be like if they weren't around. The students then write their names on white crosses which they hammer into the ground near a wrecked car involved in a real drunk driving accident parked outside the school in order to raise awareness for the entire student body.

Following the school day, the participants spend the night at a hotel and take part in a variety of activities including writing letters to loved ones to tell them what they wished they could have told them while they were alive as well as create a skit about alcohol and drunk driving to present to the senior class the next morning during school. Students must leave their cell phones at home or with the program coordinator so they can't communicate with their friends or families for the rest of the night.

Makeup Artist Karen Noblin sprays makeup on WHS Senior Karin Taylor to make her look dead as part of the program.
Makeup Artist Karen Noblin sprays makeup on WHS Senior Karin Taylor to make her look dead as part of the program.

The participating students feel strongly about Every 15 Minutes. "So many people from drunk driving," said Karin Taylor, a senior. "The program helps us teach our classmates about how their decisions can affect not only their lives, but the lives of those around them." Jared Cloud, senior and class president, agreed with Taylor, "If someone wants to do something stupid that doesn't hurt someone else, that's one thing, but if that decision can potentially negatively impact other peoples' lives, that's not okay."

Jessica Flanagan volunteered to participate partially due to an accident her family was involved in when she was in fifth grade where a drunk driver hit the family's vehicle. "None of us were injured, but the accident made me realize how important it is for everyone to understand the dangers of drunk driving."

On the night of the event, the chaplain visits one student volunteer's family, and simulates a real-life reporting of the student's "death" to his or her parents. Although aware that the report isn't real, the parents' reactions are often incredibly emotional. "I try to make the notification as realistic as possible," explained Senior Chaplain Mario Gambaro of Cowlitz County Sheriff's Department. "Many times, family members will actually start crying when they realize the possible realities of the situation."

Samantha Thompson, Community Specialist for the Cowlitz County Sheriff's Office, organizes the event for schools throughout the county. "We haven't had any alcohol-related deaths with students since the program started," she explained. "My grandfather was a sheriff who started using Every 15 Minutes in this community, so organizing and arranging the program means a lot to me."

Participating students hammer white crosses with their names on them by a car involved in an actual drunk driving accident at the front of the school.
Participating students hammer white crosses with their names on them by a car involved in an actual drunk driving accident at the front of the school. 

The program often instills a powerful impact on the students who volunteer. "Since we started the program, we haven't had a student who has participated involved in a drunk driving accident or incident," said Gambaro. Deputy Ryan Plank of the Cowlitz County Sheriff's Department volunteered to dress up as the Angel of Death this year and agrees with Gambaro. "Before we started the program, we often had young adults involved in alcohol-related crashes around prom time," he said. "Ever since the program's introduction, we haven't had any students die in drunk driving accidents before or after prom."

Cowlitz County started participating in the Every 15 Minutes program in 1996 to raise awareness among local schools of the dangers of drunk driving. "We know that students may be exposed to environments where alcohol consumption is taking place," said Sergeant Brad Gillaspie of the Woodland Police Department. "We use this program to teach students to make the right decisions for themselves and those they love."