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Students pledge not to drink and drive

Victim's mother makes dramatic plea to seniors
by: John Klicker, Students place themselves behind mock tombstones after being chosen to represent the number of people killed by drunken drivers during the ‘Every 15 Minutes’ program.

A group of graduating high school seniors stand around a keg, chugging beers, laughing and dancing to loud music and generally living it up.

Moments later, you can hear the awful shriek of a young lady as she is killed by a skidding car driven by one of the partying teenagers, who left the gathering drunk, saying he was OK to drive.

As they arrest the driver, the police inform him that if he is convicted, he is looking at a minimum of 10 years in prison for vehicular manslaughter.

'I should've taken the ride home with my parents,' the young driver says as he is led away in handcuffs.

Fortunately, this isn't reality; it's a theatrical presentation by a group of seniors during an assembly at Barlow High School on Friday morning, April 6. Unfortunately, organizers say, the presentation highlights the fact that impaired drivers kill someone an average of every 15 minutes in this country.

In cooperation with Barlow, the Gresham Police Department presented the 'Every 15 Minutes' program at the school from Wednesday through Friday, April 4-6. As part of the program, Gresham police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians meet with students to discuss driving under the influence of intoxicants and the responsibility students have in making sound decisions.

On Thursday, an officer dressed as the Grim Reaper removes a student from a classroom every 15 minutes. Volunteers transform the pre-selected students into the 'walking dead' by painting their faces white and dressing them in black robes. The students represent those who die nationwide in alcohol and drug related crashes.

The students return to their classes and resume their day except that they aren't allowed to speak or take part in any activities. On Friday, the 'dead' students appear in the school auditorium, and some of them read letters aloud to the assembly, telling parents all the things they would have told them if they hadn't been killed.

The most riveting moment in the assembly comes when Carolyn Harrington takes the stage. Her daughter, Kelsey, was 14 and a freshman at Centennial High School when a drunken driver killed her in 1999. Carolyn's husband, Bill, suffered injuries that are still being treated today, Kelsey's mother adds.

'We never stop thinking of Kelsey and all things that she missed,' Harrington tells the seniors.

She also chokes up as she reads a poem Kelsey wrote shortly before her death. In the poem, Kelsey ponders where she'll be '10 years from now,' and the verses end poignantly with the line 'I am an ecstatic teenager enjoying life.' Harrington's presentation brings tears to the eyes of many in the assembly, which greets her with a standing ovation as she leaves the stage.

The assembly ends with the seniors standing up to pledge that if they become impaired, they will allow a sober designated driver to drive them or call their parents to take them home.

The Spokane, Wash., Police Department developed 'Every 15 Minutes' in 1990. The Gresham Police Department has been involved in the program since 2001, according to Sgt. Terry O'Keeffe. The program brings home to teenagers the potentially deadly consequences they risk if they drive drunk, he says.

'Mortality is a real thing,' O'Keeffe says. 'Kids have a tendency to live for the day.'

Prior to the inception of 'Every 15 Minutes,' Gresham police had seen at least one teenager a year killed due to his or her own impaired driving, he says. Since the program began, however, no teenagers have been killed due to his or her impaired driving, he says.

The officer adds that he's received letters from students who were involved in the program in previous years, noting that they still do things like take car keys from their drunken friends at college parties.

Alyse Bowles, 17, says the program works because the 'dead' students were drawn from all the various groups in her class - the athletes, the choir kids, the band members and others. During the theatrical presentation, Alyse plays the spirit of the girl killed by the drunken driver, and yells at the driver as she stands over her 'corpse.'

'What will my parents think when I tell them I'm not coming home because of someone else's mistake?' she cries.

After the assembly, Alyse says she thinks 'Every 15 Minutes' is effective with students because it uses so many different ways to reach them.

'I hope one thing hits a nerve that really sparks something in them,' she says.