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Mock deaths at Vintage High teach drunken driving lessons

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At 10:30 Thursday morning, four somber figures, all dressed in black, opened the door of Vintage High’s classroom M-6.

“It is our sad duty and responsibility to inform you that Jennifer O’Toole has died in a drunk driving accident,” said Lee Shaw, a law enforcement chaplain for Napa County. “She loved to adventure to new places,” he continued, reading off a large white binder, “and was looking forward to traveling more.”

When Shaw finished, senior Jen O’Toole stood up. She quietly cleared her desk of a practice AP test, placed a notebook in her purse, then followed the chaplains from the silent classroom.

O’Toole was now one of some 40 “dead” Vintage juniors and seniors, pulled from class in 15-minute intervals Thursday as part of a national program intended to curb drunken driving.

The chaplains escorted her to the nurse’s clinic, where she donned a black T-shirt and had her face painted with stage makeup. O’Toole would not speak for the rest of the day.

Later Thursday morning, students with fake blood caked on their faces would simulate a traffic fatality near the school: One would “die” at the hospital, one would be “dead” at the scene, and another would be taken to jail. All would stay overnight at a hotel, away from their family and friends, and attend a mock memorial service with the rest of the school Friday morning.

“I hope this helps them question their decision making,” said Melanie Merkner, the 12th-grade social studies teacher in charge of the program. “And I hope they think about how impactful their decisions are — to themselves and their friends.”

The program, called “Every 15 Minutes,” is sponsored by law enforcement agencies. Its title comes from the mid-1990s when the number of deaths or serious injuries in alcohol-related traffic collisions amounted to one person every 15 minutes. Those numbers have dropped in recent years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: In 2009, an alcohol-related traffic fatality or injury occurred every 48 minutes.

As O’Toole saw her best friends pulled from class by the chaplains and return with eerily purple-painted faces, she said she grew more and more anxious. Though she’d known the chaplains would call her name — she’d written her own obituary and her parents signed permission slips — when her time came, “my heart dropped,” she said.

“A lot of kids don’t take (drinking and driving) that seriously,” she said, now speaking, in a manner, from the dead. She called the two days of simulated tragedies an effective “scare tactic” that “definitely gets people more aware.”

Merkner said that a student-teacher committee had chosen participating students from different social groups on campus so that kids in all social quarters would feel affected by a loss.   

The program has seen its share of controversy in the past: When Vintage held the event two years ago, one former student received a text message saying that a close friend had died, only to learn hours later that the friend was participating in “Every 15 Minutes.”

Others have questioned the program’s effectiveness, Merkner said. So she hopes that, if nothing else, the event becomes an opportunity for “students and their parents to really reflect on how much they mean to each other.”

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