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Object Lessons

Senior and Junior-class teens at Clackamas High School get a dose of reality to inoculate them against prom season.
by: david stroup, Senior Jeremy Weidman lies "dead" on the hood of one of the cars as a CCFD #1 firefighter dismantles the vehicle to rescue the people inside in a realistic enactment of the response to a crash.

Students are packed into the grandstands, pumped, screaming back at the MC who restlessly prowls the field in front of them. DJ Germ from Jammin 95.5 is spinning the disks, and helpers are launching free t-shirts into the crowd.

And then in a flash - and with a bang - the good times are over.

As the smoke clears and stunned students watch - some starting from their seats or covering their faces - an elaborately-staged drunk driving accident is revealed. The music stops, and a simulated emergency response begins to unfold, in agonizing real time.

It's going to be a very different rally than the one the students were expecting.

'Right around prom season we have an increase in accidents and fatalities around the U.S.,' said Kevin Kuehn of ambulance service AMR. 'We are very much proactive when it comes to drunk driving.'

It doesn't get much more proactive than the staged accident reenactments that AMR, Oregon Impact and local public safety agencies put on at local schools before prom season. The surprise revelation of the accident - and what follows - grab the students in a way that lectures and brochures never could.

And it seems to work: Kuehn noted that there have seen zero drunk-driving fatalities during prom season at schools where they have put on the event.

Joan Smith of Oregon Impact said the reenactments are one component in their educational program that targets kids with the message all year long, and from one year to the next. She said the students are impressionable enough that they can still reach them, and make the harsh message stick.

'Absolutely,' she said. 'Kids - a year, two years, three years down the road - this will be one of the most memorable experiences at the high school level.'

Watching tragedy

On the field, a student announcer - Ryan Keene, who has his own story to tell - has taken over. He explains that the accident is progressing in real time: One driver - a student the crowd knows - is walking around in a daze, while other call for help or lie motionless. Still there are no sirens.

Finally help arrives, and the students watch - some clutching each others' hands - as some students are declared 'dead' and firefighters go to work tearing one of the two cars apart with saws and hydraulic tools.

The rescue proceeds until there are only the dead left - like all the victims real students in elaborate accident makeup - or moulage - remaining convincingly motionless as they are pulled from the wreckage, zipped into body bags and taken away by the medical examiner.

'What we hope students will take from this is the actual realism,' Kuehn said. 'We all see it on the news - drunk-driving crashes - but unless you're there you don't get the real impact.

'We strive to get as real as we possibly can,' Kuehn said, 'so when the students leave we've touched them in some emotional way.'

Principal Jan Miner said she worries about the kids when they're off campus: 'Certainly, you always do. I have my own kids who grew up… you always worry.'

Ryan Keene worries too. After narrating the accident, the student body president told his own story - he lost a friend to a drunk driver. It was visibly difficult for him to tell the story, but he said 'when you're affected by an accident like this it's something that you want to get across to the students… so that it doesn't happen here in your community.'

And he thinks they'll listen: 'Already someone came up to me and said they'll watch for their own prom group, when they go to a prom party.'