Cooper's friend, the driver of the truck, survived the crash but was paralyzed from the waist down. The driver of the other car walked away from the scene, but the passenger riding with her was airlifted to a nearby hospital, where she succumbed to her injuries.
Fortunately, none of this actually happened to these Freedom High School students; unfortunately, it has happened and continues to happen too often to others.
The all-too-real mock-reality program called
Every 15 Minutes came to Freedom last week, emotionally demonstrating the unalterable consequences of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The fake traffic accident in the school's faculty parking lot included emergency response teams, a rescue helicopter and the county coroner.
Four students are chosen to participate in the mock accident. Other student participants are chosen from a cross-section of the student body to act as the "living dead": students who have been killed in a drug- or alcohol-related accident. They are removed from their classrooms by someone portraying the Grim Reaper, and their names and obituaries are read every 15 minutes throughout the day.
Later in the day, the school's juniors and seniors are brought to the accident scene in the parking lot to witness the efforts to rescue the four student volunteers.
The following day an emotional funeral is held in which the parents of the victims deliver their children's eulogies. Other speakers include the victims themselves reading letters they have written to their parents. A video montage is shown with photos of the accident scene interspersed with childhood photos and remembrances of the victims.
For many of those in attendance, the program and its cautionary message were especially powerful.
"The whole thing was very depressing to me," said senior Kara Tolbert. "I had a cousin who was killed by a drunk driver … he was only 13 years old."
"It definitely makes you think," said junior Antoinette Morris. "Some stubborn kids aren't going to listen, but others will."
As a result, the program appears to be helping save lives.
"We are big proponents of the 15 Minutes program," said Officer Scott Yox of the California Highway Patrol. "When the program first started, the statistics were that every 15 minutes someone died in an alcohol-related accident. Now I'm hearing it's every 41 minutes. These programs are definitely effective."
Cooper, one of the student fatalities in the mock crash, described the two days as an "emotional roller-coaster."
"It was a very intense time, I have to say," he said. "It was really tough listening to my parents talk at the funeral. …we had a lot of together time once I got home. I slept really good that night."
The nearly 30 student participants in the event spent the night in the gym at O'Hara Park Middle School, where they reflected on the day's events and separation from family and friends. The following day they attended the mock funeral and reconnected with their loved ones.
It was the second day of the program that seemed to have the most impact on the students, said Oakley Chief of Police Chris Thorsen. "It's always tough to gauge the effect programs like this have on teenage kids," he said. "But I have never seen that many kids sit still for that amount of time for anything. Clearly a message was getting out."
Leadership Director Dana Johnston, who helped organize the event, acknowledges that Every 15 Minutes is not going to change every student's life. But if even one student is affected by the drama and understands its message, it is all worthwhile, she said.
"I have to say that this is the best one that I've ever been a part of," said Johnston. "The parents speaking at the funeral really got to the kids. Basically our goal is to get one kid to think before they get behind a wheel or in a car while drinking. If they do that, then we have been successful."