The Grim Reaper wore tennis shoes beneath his hooded, black robe last week as he prowled the Temecula Valley High School campus in search of students whose mock deaths would serve to underscore the dangers of drunken and distracted driving.
Carrying a hastily-fabricated scythe in his gloved hands, the Grim Reaper was accompanied by a pair of aides. One aide would create a chalk outline of the “taken” student. The other assistant would read an obituary written about the teen.
“Our first kill was at 7:15 a.m. – Maria Martinez – a sweet girl. It was a real tragedy,” said David Dotson, who portrayed death for a day at the campus where he operates the student store. It was Dotson’s first performance as a central figure in the educational drama played out annually at scores of high schools nationwide.
The Every 15 Minutes program returned to Temecula High last week after a two-year absence. For about a decade, the safety awareness program has alternated each year between Temecula’s three high schools. A similar event, which unfolds over two days, will be held April 28-29 at Vista Murrieta High School in Murrieta.
The program challenges teens to think about making responsible choices about drinking and driving. The program originated in Canada, and one of the first events of its kind in California was held by the Chico Police Department in 1995.
The program has been questioned by some educators and researchers as to whether it provides long-term benefits to student participants or onlookers. A study done by a professor at California State University Chico, of nearly 1,200 participants at 47 high schools during the 1999-2000 school year, reported generally upbeat results.
Questions have been raised over the frequency of fatal alcohol-related deaths that are cited by the Every 15 Minutes program. Program organizers and materials point to one such death nationwide every 15 minutes.
In reality, someone was killed in an alcohol-related collision every 45 minutes nationwide in 2008, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Alcohol-related deaths dropped by 9.1 percent from 2007, according to an agency report.
The Every 15 Minutes program features a mock fatal traffic accident that utilizes police, firefighters, paramedics and other emergency services personnel. Steps are taken – via the use of theatrical makeup, taking the collision “victims” to a hospital and the “arrested” driver to county jail – to make the event as realistic as possible.
The Grim Reaper haunts the periphery of the drama. He doesn’t respond to students who cajole him or try to draw him into conversation.
Throughout the first day of the program, the Grim Reaper takes students out of class or from courtyard settings in 15-minute intervals. The selected students then slip into program T-shirts and makeup is used to transform them into the “living dead.” They circulate on campus but do not attend classes the rest of the day and cannot speak to other students.
The 25 students, who portray the injured or dead accident victims, spend the night at a Temecula motel, a retreat in which they write letters to their parents that might be read aloud at an emotional assembly held in the school gym the following day.
While the students are sequestered, they cannot use telephones, the Internet or other means to communicate with their families and friends.
Emergency services workers and relatives of people injured or killed by drunken drivers talk to the participating students and during the assembly the following day.
The student participants and their parents, who are also drawn into roles as grieving loved ones, are part of the assembly.
“That’s the power part of it,” said Grant Yates, a deputy Temecula city manager. “There’s not a dry eye in the place.”
The city annually allocates about $16,000 to help stage the program and produce a professional video, which is shown on cable television and during school district functions. The program, which is timed to coincide with spring break and student proms, also attracts donations from local groups and individuals.
The services of ambulance workers, tow truck drivers and medical transport helicopter personnel are donated for the mock collision. A casket is borrowed from a mortuary for the assembly the following day, Yates said.
The speakers this year included Barbara Knopik, whose son was killed at age 19 in an alcohol-related off-road collision nearly four years ago. The driver, an acquaintance of her son, was sentenced to eight years in prison and ordered to serve five years probation. She talked to the students about the experience of selecting a casket for her son, who had not been drinking and was a passenger during the fatal collision.
“At that point, they get it,” said Knopik, who was involved in the Every 15 Minutes program before her son was killed.
“It’s a great program,” she said. “It’s very emotionally taxing, draining, but every second is worth it.”
Edward Varela also spoke. His 14-year-old son was running across Rancho California Road about a mile from the school when he was killed by a drunken driver in April 1996. Varela said many people have grown accustom to the steady stream of headlines that detail injuries and deaths by such collisions.
“Things like this really happen to ordinary people,” said Varela, who together with his wife operate a free, confidential ride service for impaired drivers in the Temecula area. “No one is immune from the drunk driver.”
The man who killed Varela’s son was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison. Varela has been active in the program for the past eight years.
Varela and Knopik said students are usually surprised to see someone dressed like the Grim Reaper crisscrossing their campus.
“I think our (older) generation is more familiar with the Grim Reaper,” Kopik said. “I think the kids think of it more as a cartoon character. They get the point, though.”
Yates, whose children have seen the program unfold at another Temecula high school, said the Grim Reaper character emphasizes the message that friends and loved ones can be plucked away without a moment’s notice.
Yates said a hulking police officer who was 6 feet 8 inches tall and weighed about 300 pounds portrayed the character when the program was held in Temecula the first time.
“It’s an important role in the whole thing,” Yates said of the Grim Reaper. “That’s one of the most important pieces.”
Temecula High’s Grim Reaper was picked from within the campus. Dotson has worked there for three years. His wife, Doreen, works as an instructional aide at the school. One of their daughters graduated from Temecula High two years ago. The couple’s youngest daughter is a student there now.
Dotson was asked to be the event’s Grim Reaper because he enjoyed drama in high school and because he portrays Dracula at Halloween parties and at special events. He also appears at parties and other functions as Joe the Hippie, a character he created.
“He’s very good in character, so we wanted him,” said Ben Gaines, Temecula High’s activities director. “He doesn’t break out of character when he’s out (with students).”
Dotson said he wasn’t sure what to expect when he appeared in costume and in makeup as the Grim Reaper. For sound effects, he used a small, screeching doll that his brother-in-law had given him as a Halloween gag gift. Dotson kept the doll hidden beneath his sleeve and squeezed it to make a screech when he pointed at targeted students.
Although some student onlookers snickered when one of their peers was selected from a classroom or outdoor setting by the Grim Reaper, others were deeply moved, Dotson said.
“The kill is easy, but when (an aide) reads the obituary it gets really emotional,” Dotson said. “It’s a little sobering, actually, more than a little. I was going to have my daughter do it. I’m glad I didn’t.”
Martinez, who was the first of 19 Grim Reaper “kills” that day, said she was affected by the experience, even though it was hard for her parents to help write her obituary for the program.
“It’s really emotional knowing that you’re leaving people behind,” she said. “I wanted to cry, and we hadn’t even finished yet.”
Martinez, a sophomore, said she hopes to soon receive her learner’s permit. She said her boyfriend drives, and the event helped spotlight the dangers of drunken and distracted driving.
“That’s why I think it’s really important,” she said.
Brett Clark, a senior who portrayed the drunken driver during the mock traffic collision, said the roadside experience, the trip to the jail and wearing handcuffs left a lasting impression. Two students were “killed” and four others “injured” in the mock accident, which involved a mangled sedan and a van that had suffered prior rollover damage.
“It was like a reality check. It could happen to anyone at any time,” said Clark, a varsity baseball player. “It was fun, but it was like a life lesson at the same time.”
Clark, Martinez, Dotson and the other participants gathered in the school library to share a lunch of pizza and salad delivered by a local restaurant. Dotson, 47, filled a plate and pulled back the hood of his robe as he prepared for the afternoon ahead.
“It’s hard work, and all I do is show up and look creepy,” said Dotson, who stands 6 feet 2 inches tall without his sneakers or pointed hood.
After completing a few more student “takings,” Dotson wrapped up the first day of the program by taking refuge in the snack-and-supplies store that he operates as his regular job. A large sign posted at the door read: “Student store closed due to tragic deaths of TVHS students.”
Once inside the store, Dotson leaned back and pondered the experience of becoming one of society’s most visceral images.
“I had to step back (at times) to recompose myself,” he said. “I think that’s because I took it personally on the first few kills. I know those students, and I took it pretty personally. Now I’m back to being Dotson or Mr. Dotson, and I’m happy with that. I’m happy to be just me. Now if I could just get some paying gigs… ”
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