The Magazine

Scared Sober

Another way to waste taxpayers' money and schoolchildren's time

Aug 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 44 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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Every spring, just around prom time, dead bodies and crumpled cars litter America's suburban streets. Full-scale emergency response teams swarm around the accident sites, complete with helicopters, ambulances, and the occasional hearse. Police officers visit high school classrooms to break the news about classmates' lives tragically cut short by drunk drivers. Parents weep.

But if you happen upon any such scenes on the side of the road, it's pretty likely that everyone is faking it for the cameras. It's all part of the Every 15 Minutes program.

Since 1995, thousands of high school students across the country have been subjected to this educational opportunity, which operates on the "scared straight" principle of drunk driving prevention.

In most schools, Every 15 Minutes takes the form of a theatrical happening stretched out over two days. A student dressed as the Grim Reaper arrives and chooses a classmate for death. The Reaper then returns every 15 minutes to take another "life" in order to emphasize the (completely dubious) statistic from which the program takes its name--on average, they claim, someone is killed every 15 minutes in an alcohol-related accident. The "dead" students are decked out in white face makeup and black T-shirts (available in poly/cotton mix with a Grim Reaper logo for only $6.25 at every15minutes.com!). They walk among the living, but aren't allowed to talk to anyone for the rest of the day, which many high school students may actually consider a fate worse than death.

Dean Wilson, a community relations officer for the Bethlehem Township, Pennsylvania, police department has been helping bring Grim Reapers and bloody jalopies to schools nationwide since the mid-1990s. He now runs the national organization. The Every 15 Minutes website shows 119 schools officially registered with the national organization this spring, but that figure captures only a fraction of the students carted off to early graves, since many (perhaps most) schools put on knock-off versions without official sanction--and without paying Every 15 Minutes' fees. The program is not officially affiliated with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, but MADD members frequently participate, offering testimonials and other conventional finger-wagging support services. Police involved with the widely popular, questionably effective anti-drug education program D.A.R.E. often organize Every 15 Minutes events in their districts--Officer Wilson, for instance, is also Bethlehem's D.A.R.E. officer. And who pays for all this bounty? Why, taxpayers, of course, primarily via small grants from the would-be reformers at state and local highway departments, offices of public safety, fire departments, and city councils.

This spring at El Camino High School in Ocean-side, California, the program took a new tack. The tragicomical Grim Reaper was tossed out, and the accident victims simply failed to turn up at their homerooms one Monday morning. Police officers showed up in 20 classrooms, placed red roses on missing students' chairs, and announced the deaths of a popular athlete and other Big Men (and women) on campus. The student body wasn't clued in to the fact that their "dead" classmates were really just holed up in a seminar room, trying out beer-goggling simulations and writing letters to their parents full of fake self-flagellation for fake drinking and driving. Many students got understandably upset.

Word spread pretty fast, thanks to the contemporary form of note passing: text messaging. Some of the teachers had to calm hysterical students with the truth--their classmates were alive and well--but a significant portion of the student body didn't find out the facts until an assembly was called and the traffic accident was "reenacted." Needless to say, many were not amused.

The "reenactment" is a standard part of the program, and it is often supplemented with a video the following day showing the fictional events leading up to the crash, as well as the medical and emotional aftermath. Some of the videos are professional productions, but often they are the work of students, which lands them straight on YouTube.

This means that not only are suburban streets knee-deep in fake gore, the online video-sharing site is thick with faux corpses, too. The musical scores tend to maudlin alternative rock, and the students playing the stereotyped roles of Promising Young Athlete, Party Girl, and Honor Student show themselves willing and able to chew scenery. A quick YouTube search reveals videos from high schools in Pittsburgh, Sacramento, and even one from this year's El Camino program.