Dramatic Life Lesson: Don’t Drink and Drive

Blaring sirens, flashing lights, shattered glass, screaming witnesses. A rescue team rushes to the crash scene in the parking lot next to the 700 Building at Scripps Ranch High School. Two cars involved in a head-on collision, one suspected drunk driver, two paralyzed victims, numerous firefighters…and one deceased student. “He killed her! He killed her!” one witness cries out. Blood everywhere. How did this happen? An ambulance echoes in the distance. It was too soon for her to die.

Fortunately, the scene was only a dramatization. On Thursday and Friday, Mar. 20 and 21, the SRHS campus was submerged in a highly emotional whirlwind of activity. The drunk driving awareness program, “Every 15 Minutes,” powerfully resonated throughout the campus and community. The graphic dramatization of a crash scene—reenacted by students and including realistic depictions of the consequences of drinking and driving—made a compelling impact on Scripps Ranch students, parents, and community members.

The program began on Thursday morning with an announcement over the school intercom stating, “Every 15 minutes someone is killed in a drinking and driving incident.” To portray this startling statistic, the ominous “Grim Reaper,” cloaked in all black and a face mask, took preselected students from classes to embody drunk driving victims as the “living dead.”

Senior Danielle Johnston shares, “Having someone taken from my class without warning was one of the scariest things for me. Here you have someone you interact with every day, and the next moment they’re gone…everything hits like a ton of bricks. It could easily be real life.”

The “living dead” later had their faces painted with dark makeup and wore all black clothing. Their tombstones lined the grass in the quad. During lunch peers had the opportunity to sit with the deceased students, read their obituaries, and say their last words. “Living dead” students remained mute for the two-day program. They were asked to disconnect from their phones and social media to truly capture what their absence would feel like had they been victims of a drunk driving crash.

Later that morning a prerecorded 911 call aired over the school’s sound system with sirens to direct underclassmen to the gym for a “Teen Truth” program and upperclassmen to head to the parking lot. By 11 am juniors and seniors sat in bleachers surrounding a realistic crash scene—complete with the remains of a totaled car, broken glass, fake blood, and student actors sprawled across the wreckage. The reenactment began as John Kavanagh, the “intoxicated driver,” stepped out of his crashed car and witnessed the head-on collision he caused.

Jordan Mageo, the driver of the other car, and Anthony Mossuto, positioned in the back seat with a severe head wound, were both “pinned” inside the crushed vehicle. Serena Thadani lay motionless on the hood of the car, evidently having died after crashing through the windshield.

Witness Megan Perry called 911 to report the accident, and minutes later two California Highway Patrol (CHP) vehicles sped toward the scene with sirens and lights blaring. Soon a San Diego Fire-Rescue Department engine and ambulance arrived with more than a dozen officers, firefighters, and paramedics. Firefighters used the “jaws of life” to pry open the crushed metal car doors and carefully transported the injured students on a gurney to a waiting ambulance.

A CHP officer performed a sobriety test on the intoxicated driver, arrested him, and transported him to the police station. A mortician and hearse arrived as the reenactment unfolded, later transporting the “deceased” victim off campus. Meanwhile, a helicopter hovered over the scene and landed on the nearby soccer field to transport the injured passenger and “basketball star athlete” Anthony Mossuto to Sharp Memorial Hospital.

Christian Prince, a witness to the crash, placed a red rose on top of Serena’s coffin, as the “living dead” each handed a white carnation to a loved one in the audience. The dramatization both vividly and effectively captured the procedures that take place in a real-life drunk driving crash, and it made a profound and moving impact on everyone watching.

The following day, seniors and juniors were ushered to the gym to witness a funeral service for Serena and watch a student-directed video capturing the entire dramatization from start to finish. The video followed the key characters and featured scenes from before the crash as John “partied” with friends and then got behind the wheel “intoxicated.”

The video displayed footage from the graphic crash scene and the aftermath of the accident, highlighting the harsh ramifications of a DUI as John was booked at the police station. Senior and co-director of the Every 15 Minutes film, Zach Barnes, describes how the intent of the film was to “build characterization and emotion with well-known students Serena, Jordan, and Anthony, who plays the role of the star athlete who becomes paralyzed.”

Zach elaborates, “Drew Bushnell and I added our own vision and style to the video, but the goal was to tell a story, show who these people are, and show the dangers of drinking and driving with our own twist.” You can see the video on the SRHS home page at [www.srhsfalcons.org].

At the service in the gym, students who were removed to portray the “living dead” shared letters to their parents as though it was their final goodbye. Parents of these participants also read aloud very personal and emotional letters to their “deceased” students, as though they too were giving their last words. Approximately 200 family members of the participants and community members attended the service.

Taylor Nguyen, Associated Student Body (ASB) officer and SRHS senior, describes how the ASB expected the day to be emotional. “We try to get the message that driving drunk is unacceptable through all the students’ heads…if that were to happen to them it would be extremely traumatizing for all involved.”

Sophia Guerra, best friends with Serena adds, “If this happened in real life, it would be so hard for everyone, even seeing it fake, it hurts…if that was one of your friends, what would you do?”

The program’s goal is to realistically show the aftermath of drinking and driving crashes. With preparations beginning last August, SRHS administrators and ASB officers Serena Thadani, Mason Kellet, and Andrew Erickson had been secretly preparing for the full-scale crash scene.

The program was funded by a nearly $10,000 California grant and the SRHS Foundation. After ASB members acquired the necessary funds, they reached out for support from the CHP, San Diego Fire-Rescue and Police departments, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and Sharp Memorial Hospital. Special thanks goes to firefighters from Fire Station 44, whose area includes Scripps Ranch.

The program gave students first-hand experience with the tragedy that results from drunk driving, as well as educated students about the harsh legal ramifications of DUIs. By “showing” rather than “telling” about the bitter consequences when teens make the poor choice to drink and drive, students were able to connect with the program on a personal level as well as with the community as a whole.

SRHS vice principal John King reinforces the idea that anyone in the community can be affected by drunk driving, and that students should understand “they aren’t invincible.” He says that the program also sends a strong message to parents and “gives families the opportunity to discuss with each other the dangers of drunk driving.” Mr. King asserts the most hard-hitting impact occurs when students are forced to pause and think, “What would I say if I was given one last chance to tell my parents how thankful I am?”

He adds that many times teenagers are afraid to reach out to their parents in times of trouble for fear of consequences. However, to ensure your student gets home safely, parents can adopt a “get out of jail free” policy with their teen.

Serena, the senior class president and student who “dies” in the dramatization, comments, “We hope students take this seriously, make better decisions, and realize that drinking and driving can easily ruin life goals and your future.” She continues, “Even if one student is impacted to make better choices, then we know we’ve been successful.”

SRHS is proud to have expanded the program this year to underclassmen by providing a “Teen Truth” seminar to warn of the dangers of distracted driving. With the immense community support, the SRHS administration hopes to extend this program in future years. Considering the extensive amount of time, planning, and resources put into “Every 15 Minutes,” Mr. King enthuses that the “student commitment and dedication” toward making the event possible has been fundamental to the program’s success.

For many Scripps Ranch residents, the program hits close to home. It rekindles memories of Scripps Ranch student Noelle Marra, who was killed by a drunk driver in January 1995. Years later, the SRHS administration wants to ensure even in the “hustle and bustle students don’t forget how important it is to remember they are vulnerable” and to consider the severity of drinking and driving.

Sarah Trott, SRHS Senior

[Editor’s notes: Sarah is the editor in chief of the SRHS newspaper, The Falcon Flyer. She will attend the University of Missouri for journalism and political science next fall. Also, San Diego Unified Police Department Chief Rueben Littlejohn attended the presentation. He asked that we remind the community that driving under the influence of marijuana and other drugs is also against the law and can have the same deadly consequences.]