The day was just getting started at North High School in Torrance. As unsuspecting students settled in, routine morning announcements gave way to this chilling statistic cited over the intercom by a peer: “Every 15 minutes, someone in the United States dies due to an alcohol-related collision. Today you may experience the effects of these deaths.”
Soon after, a campus security officer dressed as the Grim Reaper appeared and, for the remainder of the day, summoned one student every 15 minutes from his or her desk. Just like that, they were gone.
“Every 15 Minutes,” a program funded through a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety, through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was carried out in dramatic, eye-opening and often gruesome detail over two days in April at the school. The program challenges juniors and seniors to think about how being distracted while driving—either from drinking, texting or otherwise—can deeply impact them, their family and their friends.
Though “Every 15 Minutes” is a mock activity, its effects are real and long-lasting. As the program at North unfolded, other sobering scenes were enacted.
A Torrance police officer read each dead student’s obituary to their classmates. Tombstones were placed in the quad one by one. Officers visited parents (prepped in advance by school officials), delivering the crushing news: “I’m sorry to inform you that today your child was killed by a drunk driver.”
A mock 911 call later played over the intercom, notifying the student body—almost 2,100 teenagers—that a car accident had just occurred outside. Teachers dismissed classes to the scene. Although the setup was just that, a real team of local emergency responders quickly arrived, just as they would in real life: Torrance police officers, firefighters, ambulances. A Hawthorne police helicopter circled as the Jaws of Life cut student actors, bloodied and scared, from mangled cars.
Some of the eight students involved pretended to be injured; some pretended to be dead. The student playing the part of the drunk driver was given a sobriety test, taken to jail, fingerprinted and locked in a cell. The deceased were covered and taken to the morgue, where their parents had to identify them.
The “critically injured” were taken by ambulance to Torrance Memorial Medical Center’s simulated emergency room, physicians and nurses standing by. Still, some of those did not “survive.”
Perhaps the most emotionally draining activity was the memorial service that took place in front of the student body on the second day; the previous day’s “deceased” students and their parents took turns sharing letters they had written to one another expressing their sorrow at the losses.
You could hear a pin drop; it was tough to find a dry eye. Many students said they couldn’t wait to get home and hug their parents. To see “Every 15 Minutes” play out is a harrowing experience, but that’s the goal.
Senior Brandon Yee serves on the board of directors for Human Relations Ambassadors (HRA), a chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD), and was in charge of the classroom student “deaths,” mock death notifications and the graveyard area. He said students respond to up-close-and-personal lessons more than simply hearing the statistics.
“I’ve committed to being a safe driver, and I’m determined to stop my friends from drinking or texting and driving,” he says.
Student victims who were selected to participate—about 30 in all—and their parents were prepped prior to and after the event. During a retreat and debriefings at the end, some students revealed that they had indeed gotten behind the wheel after drinking, and they shared regret as well as profound relief that they hadn’t hurt anyone.
“Everyone knows drinking or texting while driving is bad, but they don’t think anything bad is going to happen to them or affect another life,” said Ahrah Ko, a senior at North, student leader of “Every 15 Minutes” and president of the HRA. “This program showed us the harsh reality. It was a good life lesson for me.”
Teacher Jenna Murata, the HRA advisor who spearheaded the program at North, attributed its success to students like Ko, Yee and others who worked tirelessly to help plan the event, as well as law enforcement, local organizations, North faculty and parents. The event took nearly the entire school year to plan, due to the numerous details and collaborations involved.
Murata said the message extended beyond one of not drinking and driving: “We wanted to show that all choices you make affect others and help students see that making bad decisions will have an impact on their family and friends.”
The emotional, heavy-hitting aspects of the event also touched those outside the school. Torrance Memorial’s Cathy Hargrove, RN, manager of health education, led the hospital’s participation in the event. She coordinated Torrance Memorial’s makeup artist and a team of healthcare professionals who had a hand in the planning and execution.
“Initially we didn’t think it would affect us the way it did,” Hargrove says. “But many staff members have kids who go to North, and they found the program and our participation in it incredibly powerful. I think everyone involved was impacted in ways they never expected.”
Hargrove said Torrance Memorial intends to participate in subsequent “Every 15 Minutes” programs. “It’s intense, and it’s a big project for us, but we’re absolutely onboard.”
The SADD chapter at North High School is sponsored by DCH Toyota of Torrance. In partnership with the California Highway Patrol, the involvement of the school and local law enforcement, Torrance Memorial, emergency medical responders, businesses and others was a widespread community effort that required numerous hours of planning and meticulous detail in its execution.
Thank You To Our Sponsors
Funding for “Every 15 Minutes” at North High School was provided by a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Additional funding was provided by DCH Toyota of Torrance and Ashley Shanander, Allstate agent.
Others who made the event possible included:
- California Highway Patrol – Officer Dion Conley
- Torrance Police Department – Sergeant Patrick Hunt, Officer Kelli McCarthy, Officer Paul Sanderson
- Torrance Fire Department – Laura Bednar, Chief Brian Hudson
- Gerber Ambulance – Michael Wade
- Torrance Memorial Medical Center – John Edwards, Cathy Hargrove
- Van Lingen Towing
- Hawthorne Police Department
- L.A. County Coroner’s Office
- DCH Toyota of Torrance – Evelyn Gomez, Alex Dickinson, Barry Magnus
- MADD – Marlene Young
- The Thelma McMillen Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment of Torrance Memorial Medical – Dr. Donnie Watson
- White & Day Mortuaries
- Pastor Lon Murata
- On Tape Video Productions
- Albert & James Photography
- Villa Hermosa
- Costco Wholesale
- Home Depot
- Balfour Beatty Construction
- Lisa’s Bon Appetit
- Torrance Area Chamber of Commerce – Donna Duperron
- North High School faculty and staff – Marc Pioch, Heather Brooke, Jeff Phillips, Rob Nobles, Lori Atkins, Tommy Hua, Chris Johnson, Karl Jennings
- 2012–13 Human Relations Ambassadors, a chapter of SADD: Ahrah Ko, president—command post coordinator; Tori Kamada, HRA communications officer—funeral assembly/reception coordinator; Sami Horito, director of human relations—crash assembly coordinator; Brandon Yee, director of Safe School Ambassadors—living dead/ graveyard coordinator; Jerry Chu, director of conflict resolution—retreat coordinator; Denay Rogers, HRA financial officer—video/media coordinator
- Jenna Murata, HRA advisor