The Teens Who Play Dead to Save Lives
The Teens Who Play Dead to Save Lives
On a hot April morning in Shingle Springs, California, volunteers inside a gym at Ponderosa High School are painting teenagers with fake blood. Others hold battery-powered fans a few inches from their faces to mess up their hair. A man dressed as the Grim Reaper peruses a folding table laden with peanut butter pretzels, gummy bears, and doughnuts.
Evan Chavez, an 18-year-old senior, and Ella Beezley, a 17-year-old junior, are waiting their turn at the makeup station. “I’m in the car with Alex—as the passenger—who’s the drunk driver,” explains Chavez, who has red hair and a matching beard. “And I get critically injured and helicoptered to the hospital.” Chavez is slated to lose an arm during the event. Soon, he says, it will be “bloody and black and blue and crushed, like it’s losing blood and starting to die.”
“I’m the passenger in the other car, and I get hit and die,” says Beezley, who will have a large head wound applied above her wide hazel eyes. “I’m dead on the scene.”
Shingle Springs, located in rural El Dorado County, is a community of less than 5,000 people, about 40 miles from Sacramento. Beezley and Chavez, along with 34 others, have been selected from around 1,800 at Ponderosa High—or “Pondo,” as everyone calls it—to play a role in their school’s version of Every 15 Minutes, a grisly pageant involving a mock car crash and funeral intended to curtail teen drunk driving through elaborate role playing. Ponderosa High stages the program every two years for its junior and senior classes.
Every 15 Minutes has been administered by the California Highway Patrol for the past 19 years, and funded through a grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; in 2019 the grant was $1.4 million, down from $1.6 million in 2018. Around 160 schools statewide receive up to $6,000 to voluntarily produce the program, with help from local CHP officers and other public agencies. The bulk of the funds is expended on “mini-grants” for schools and for CHP personnel costs. (This year, $900,000 has been set aside for mini-grants and $494,884 for personnel costs, the majority of which funds officer overtime.)
Productions vary from school to school, but largely hew to guidelines laid out in a detailed 109-page handbook published by the CHP, now in its tenth edition and last updated in 2016. Each year, teens daubed in gruesome stage makeup—either by professional makeup artists or by volunteers who take classes in moulage, the art of applying mock wounds—are placed inside smashed-up cars and tended to by a fleet of actual emergency responders and law enforcement officials before an audience of their peers, who watch as the students are loaded into ambulances and zipped into body bags.
“I’m the passenger in the other car, and I get hit and die. I’m dead on the scene.”
The crash is the centerpiece of a two-day production that takes up to ten months to coordinate, with a fleet of volunteers that includes parents, law enforcement, emergency personnel, health workers, and school employees. Students, parents, and local officials act out courtroom and hospital scenes. Parents weep when chaplains arrive at their homes and workplaces to deliver realistic death notifications. These tableaux are recorded and cut together into videos that live on YouTube and elicit comments like: “Is this real?!”
After the simulated car crash, teens are stripped of their cell phones and spirited away to a location for an overnight retreat, so family and friends can better experience their fictional 24-hour death. The following day everyone assembles for a mock funeral, where teens tearfully address their parents as if from beyond the grave. All of this is engineered to put participants through “an emotional roller coaster,” according to the manual—a pain worth enduring, in order to save lives.
Every 15 Minutes is named for a 1990s statistic describing the frequency at which people die in alcohol-related motor-vehicle crashes. That rate is now every 50 minutes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but Every 15 Minutes hasn’t adjusted to reflect the new data. Thus, the program calls for a Grim Reaper to begin entering classrooms early in the morning before the crash scene at 15-minute intervals, to remove students (and sometimes teachers) and induct them into the world of the dead. (In reality, they are typically taken to a staging area, like Pondo’s gym, for costuming and makeup.) Depending on the size of the school, anywhere from 18 to 24 students are pulled from class. A select few receive starring roles in the impending crash scene; the rest become “living dead,” their faces painted white and eyes hollowed out with black makeup.
Today the Grim Reaper is being played by James Greule, the neighbor of school guidance counselor Katie Hunter. Greule was tapped for the role because he’s tall enough to fill out the velvety shroud, which just covers his Converse. His face is hidden behind black netting, and he totes a shoulder-tall scythe prop. When he enters math teacher Brian Fulp’s classroom, flanked by two uniformed officers, the students fall silent and turn to stare at the ghoulish cohort.
The Reaper calls out the name of Fulp, who dutifully takes his place next to the specter. “Brandon Fulp was a beloved math teacher at Ponderosa High School and a favorite among all the students,” reads one of the officers from a laminated obituary that will later be posted publicly. He loved four-wheeling, the officer continues, advised the roller hockey team, and looked forward to seeing his kids grow up—before he was killed by a drunk driver.
The reading over, the team exits, followed by the sound of students breaking out in nervous laughter. Later, in the gym, Fulp—who has lost three friends to drunk driving—tells me that the program is “emotionally taxing” and that he has prepared for the days ahead by filling his pockets with tissues.
The Grim Reaper and the goth-like living dead are fantastical elements in a program otherwise obsessed with realism, whose origins can be traced back to Spokane, Washington, where officers of that city’s police department are credited with creating Every 15 Minutes in 1990. By 1995, the Chico Police Department had brought the program south with a grant from the California Alcoholic Beverage Control, which oversaw it until 2000, when statewide management was transferred to the CHP. It is overseen by a full-time, Sacramento-based, statewide coordinator who advises officers on how to mount local productions. Enrollment peaked in the 2015–2016 funding cycle, when 172 schools implemented it; an estimated 130,000 students participate in or watch productions in California every year. (The program isn’t unique to the West Coast; versions of Every 15 Minutes—sometimes under different names, such as Texas’s Shattered Dreams—exist in nearly every state.)
“The only way to really show people how dangerous and life-threatening a car crash is, is to show them an actual car crash,” says Denise Tapia, the statewide coordinator of Every 15 Minutes, who wore a polo shirt stitched with the CHP logo, jeans, and heels on the morning of the Ponderosa High event. The point, she told me, is not “we’re showing you some fake dead kids” but that “everybody is affected on every level—everybody. Community members, first responders, teachers, parents. Everybody in this community would be affected by one student who was killed.”
The notion that teens need to be spooked into good behavior is not new. During the 1970s, a program called Scared Straight, which sent at-risk kids into prisons to be yelled at by inmates, rose to prominence in part thanks to a film by the same name that earned an Academy Award for best documentary in 1978. That program has been largely discredited due to research that showed children who attended these events were more likely to commit crimes than those who didn’t. This research prompted officials from the Department of Justice to denounce Scared Straight programs in a 2011 op-ed in the Baltimore Sun. Present-day versions include programs that task teens with caring for screaming robot babies and antidrug curriculums laden with stories of death and insanity—both tactics that haven’t held up to scientific scrutiny.
Teens daubed in gruesome stage makeup are placed inside smashed-up cars and are tended to by a fleet of emergency responders and law enforcement officials before an audience of their peers.
Researchers call such strategies “fear-based appeals,” and they are historically controversial. One frequently cited 2015 meta-analysis, published by the American Psychological Association, looked at 127 research articles and found that fear-based appeals were effective—in certain, small ways. For instance, they worked best for adjusting one-time behavior (like persuading people to get a flu shot) and were more effective on women. (Men are four times more likely to drive drunk than women.) But decades of research have cast doubt on the effectiveness of scare tactics, particularly for teens.
A 2004 report on underage drinking sponsored by the US Department of Health and Human Services stated that programs relying on fear tactics “have consistently been found to be ineffective in reducing alcohol use.” In 2014, the Research and Data Division of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, located in Every 15 Minutes’ home state, issued a report on school-based drunk-driving education programs that stated, “Every 15 Minutes and Grim Reaper/Mock Crashes have not produced significant, long-term outcomes on attitudes or behavior.”
But the CHP cites the decline in the number of teens dying and being injured in alcohol-related motor-vehicle crashes in California—a 47 percent decrease between 2015 and 2018—as evidence the program works. However, no data is provided to support this claim, and Tapia acknowledges that the statistics can’t be tied to any specific program. A 2018 grant agreement from the California Office of Traffic Safety suggests that Every 15 Minutes reduces teen alcohol and drug use, and is “considered one of the most effective education programs for teenagers.” Whether Every 15 Minutes does reduce substance abuse or save lives is unknown; in its 24 years, the program has never been evaluated by researchers for efficacy.
But both adults and teens in Shingle Springs believe in the necessity of scare tactics. Over the two days I spent at Ponderosa High, school employees, law enforcement personnel, parents, and students repeatedly told me that teens “need” to see and experience the consequences of drunk driving to truly understand the risks. According to the grant agreement, the program “creates awareness among teens that they are not invincible.”
Many experts say teens’ brains don’t assess risk the same way adult brains do, although this doesn’t necessarily support the educational value of fear. “The problem here is that there is discontinuity in adolescent brain development, where the parts of the brain associated with risk and reward develop much more quickly and earlier than the parts of the brain associated with executive judgment,” says Dr. David Jernigan, a professor of health law, policy, and management at Boston University School of Public Health who studies teens and alcohol. “So what you're basically doing is setting up an educational campaign that's appealing to a part of the young person's brain that is disadvantaged, compared to the part of the young person's brain that is drawn to risk.”
Biologically, adolescents are also less sensitive to punishment than adults, which also reduces the likelihood teens will respond to fear-based messages, according to Dr. Christopher Hammond, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who studies adolescents and substance misuse. The appeal of Every 15 Minutes likely lies in its emotional impact, he says. But “the evidence for effectiveness as an intervention in reducing teen drunken-driving behaviors really isn’t there.”
At 9:30 a.m. sharp, the junior and senior classes of Ponderosa High are led by teachers to a semicircle of bleachers erected in front of Ponderosa Road, bordering the front of the school. They take their places under the hot sun—it’s a breezeless 77 degrees—where they fidget and check their phones. On the asphalt are two huge lumps, covered in red tarps. Those not selected for parts in the crash scene stand off to the side with the Grim Reaper, in matching T-shirts that read, “Living Dead.” Across the street, neighbors lean over a wooden fence for a better view of the show.
As soon as a pair of volunteers whisks the red tarps away, the audience snaps to attention and the drama begins. Underneath are a gray Ford compact, its hood crumpled and window shattered, and a mangled SUV, tipped on its side. (The vehicles, donated by a local body shop, were towed into position earlier that morning.) Poking from the SUV’s passenger window is Chavez’s arm, painted purple and blue and splattered in stage blood. (Minutes earlier, he had been flicking fake blood at his costar, a petite 18-year-old senior with caramel-colored hair named Alex Steiner. “You flicked it all in my mouth,” she said, laughing.) In the Ford, which remains upright, are Beezley, with strands of blonde hair stuck in the black pulp that coats her left temple, and Kyle Phillips, with a purple eye and a gash in his cheek.
Sirens wail in the distance, and two fire trucks, an ambulance, and a CHP patrol car with flashing lights roar onto the scene. Firefighters and medics rush to tend to the victims. Outfitted with mics, their voices reach the crowd through crackly speakers. The scene is strangely subdued as they expertly peel back the Ford’s crushed window and deploy the jaws of life—which looks like a giant robot lobster claw—to crunch away the driver’s side door so Phillips can be extracted. The neighbors smile and snap photos.
Steiner is led to the side of the road by a CHP officer, who gives her a sobriety test. She does a good job of looking dazed, sitting wearily on a nearby rock, her head cradled in her hands. As the sound of handcuffs being tightened plays over the loudspeakers, the officer gives her a breathalyzer test and tells her she is being arrested for driving under the influence. In reality, Steiner has already been to the jail and court, to act in scenes that will fill out a video version of the program. In court, she sat shamefaced in an orange jumpsuit as her father cried and told her he didn’t know if he could ever look at her the same way again; then a real judge handed down a fake sentence of 16 years. “I felt like I was going to pass out during that, because my dad had to talk about me,” she told me earlier in the gym.
At 9:55, a CHP helicopter passes close overhead; helicopters are “center stage” components of the Every 15 Minutes program that can be “very dramatic,” according to the handbook, which recommends they land somewhere with an unobstructed view. Ponderosa Road isn’t an ideal landing spot, so the chopper buzzes by twice before settling down behind the audience on the football field.
Whether Every 15 Minutes does reduce substance abuse or save lives is unknown; in its 24 years, the program has never been evaluated by researchers for efficacy.
Phillips, wearing a neck brace and with a bloodied knee poking out of khaki shorts, is strapped to a stretcher and loaded into the ambulance. Beezley keeps her eyes tightly closed and listens as first responders feel her pulse and pronounce her dead, before she is zipped into a body bag that smells heavily of plastic. Chavez is ferried to the waiting helicopter. In an actual crash, he would have to be medevaced to a hospital due to his injuries; but now he is flown to a nearby airport, then taken to the fire station to wash off.
The evacuation of all bodies signals the end of the scene, and Ponderosa principal Lisa Garrett steps up to a microphone to read Beezley’s obituary to the class (“Ella enjoyed working out, cooking, and spending time with friends and family”) before addressing the students.
“The senior class of 2019 has suffered the loss of three classmates for various reasons not related to driving while under the influence,” she says. It is a jarring pivot from the simulated to the literal; Garrett is addressing three very real deaths that occurred over the past four years. After urging the students to make good decisions, she reminds them that “we carry on because we have to, because our loved ones would want us to, and because there is still light to guide us in the world from the love that they gave us.”
Dismissed, the students start filtering out, chatting and laughing. Most watched the presentation attentively, some taking pictures and video on their phones. A few are visibly upset, like a boy who sat near me, close to the action, who began crying during the presentation and tearfully explained to an adult that one of his classmates who died—actually died—was driving to school to attend a class they had together when that student crashed their car.
Ponderosa school officials considered canceling the Every 15 Minutes program this year, due to the losses suffered by the senior class since 2016, which include an accidental drowning, a death by suicide, and, most recently, as the upset student had told me, a car crash in May 2018. In the end, they opted for keeping classrooms open for students who didn’t want to attend, and hiring therapists to be on hand during the two-day presentation. They also tweaked the script, according to Hunter, the guidance counselor. Instead of displaying a crashed car on the quad as they have in past years, they hung up a poster of a car-crash scenario near the obituaries, and selected Beezley, a junior, to die instead of a senior class member.
Only a few people I talked to who participated in Ponderosa’s Every 15 Minutes worried that the production might be too gory or upsetting; one teen who had lost a relative in a drunk-driving accident told me she wished it was more extreme. This attitude is mirrored in news articles published every year in California. Media coverage is a key component of the program, and the handbook advises that “every attempt should be made to encourage the media—print, radio, and TV” to cover the event. In addition to providing publicity, the media adds an extra layer of reality to the experience. “If this were real, they would be shooting the police, fire, and ambulances,” the handbook explains.
A 2019 headline from the Record in Stockton, California, “Driving Home a Sobering Message,” is a typical one, and years of press reports suggest the program has received little criticism. Multiple schools did cancel their presentations in 2018 after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 14 students were killed, citing concerns that it would upset students.
Without research, it’s difficult to know what, if any, negative impact the Every 15 Minutes program could have on teens, says Dr. Hammond, the Johns Hopkins researcher. But based on his work with youth who have histories of trauma, “causing re-exposure or bringing them back to that traumatic experience can make them feel worse.” According to Tapia, outside experts, such as psychiatrists or researchers who study teens and impaired driving, have never been consulted on the design of the Every 15 Minutes curriculum.
When negative stories about the program have surfaced in the press, it’s because a school goes off script. In 2008, officials at El Camino High School in Oceanside, a coastal community south of Los Angeles, informed students that several peers had perished in car crashes. In reality, they were standing by to act out Every 15 Minutes. Students stood in clusters crying for hours until the hoax was revealed, according to an Associated Press report.
“They were traumatized, but we wanted them to be traumatized,” an El Camino guidance counselor told the news agency. “That’s how they get the message.”
By 11 a.m., the living dead and the crash victims have reassembled in the gym, scrubbed of their wounds and wearing clean clothes. Stacked up against one wall are trash bags filled with their belongings, to be taken to an overnight retreat at a local camp, where they will be served a taco dinner, talk over the day’s events, and listen to a presentation by a Ponderosa alum and former heroin addict before sitting down to write letters to their parents that begin, “Today I died … and I never got the chance to say good-bye.” For now they’re eating donated Chik-fil-A sandwiches, playing cards, and shooting hoops on the basketball court.
“I didn’t realize how realistic it would feel,” Beezley tells me of playing dead. Her role didn’t end with the crash. Afterward, she was taken to a hospital, where a morgue scene was assembled and her parents were brought in to identify her bloodied body. “Yes, that’s our daughter,” her mother said, grasping her husband’s hand tightly as a cameraperson filmed the scene. A body tag was attached to Beezley’s ankle, just above her socks printed with a bacon-and-eggs pattern.
“My mom could not stop crying,” Beezley says. When I ask her if the tactics were too much, she shakes her head. “Honestly, no,” she says firmly. “Because that’s reality; this happens every day. People need to see that.”
Car crashes are still the leading cause of death for teenagers in the United States. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2,526 teenagers were killed in car crashes in 2017. Nearly a quarter of those crashes involved a driver who was drinking underage.
However, alcohol-related driving deaths have gone down over time. In 2017, 10,874 deaths occurred as a result of drunk-driving crashes, compared to 26,173 in 1982, five years before the program began in California. Every 15 Minutes cites the reduction in drunk-driving fatalities and injuries as proof of the program’s worth, but reduction in drunk-driving deaths nationwide are largely due to more rigorous law enforcement: making it illegal for anyone under 21 to buy alcohol, instituting blood-alcohol limits, conducting sobriety checkpoints, and revoking drivers’ licenses are all measures that have been estimated to have saved over 300,000 lives between 1982 and 2001. Graduated driver licensing—in which new drivers are allowed incremental access to driving privileges based on experience and testing—has helped lower teen driver deaths. Other factors at play include a decline in teen driving overall (in 2017, only about a quarter of 16-year-olds had licenses, as opposed to nearly half in 1983) and, according to some studies, the rise of rideshare apps such as Uber and Lyft.
“They were traumatized, but we wanted them to be traumatized. That’s how they get the message.”
A 2018 report, Getting to Zero Alcohol-Impaired Driving Fatalities: A Comprehensive Approach to a Persistent Problem, published by the National Academies of Sciences and funded by the NHTSA, concluded that “although educational programs are popular with policy makers, the public, and alcohol-related economic operators, in general school-based educational programs have limited evidence of producing change.” When it comes to further lowering drunk-driving deaths—which plateaued between 2009 and 2015 before rising slightly—the report recommends practical but unpopular measures like lowering the legal blood-alcohol limit to 0.05, raising the cost of alcohol, and restricting its availability.
“The big problem with programs like Every 15 Minutes is they disregard the environmental cues that are so much more powerful in affecting young people's decisions around drinking and driving,” says Dr. Jernigan, who was part of the 13-member committee that produced the 2018 report. “Things like how cheap alcohol is. How easy it is to get it. How attractively and ubiquitously it’s advertised. Unless you’re tackling those big environmental drivers, you are swimming upstream against a tidal wave.”
While experts haven’t pinpointed a specific curriculum to quell teen drunk driving, they tend to agree that parents play a key role in their kids’ choices. “Young people need limits,” says Dr. Jernigan, “and they need limits that are applied by people who maintain close relationships with them and treat them with an attitude of respect.”
The morning after the crash simulation, the junior and senior classes flow into Ponderosa’s “Big Gym,” where a casket, on loan from a local mortuary, sits atop a gurney in the center of the floor under a spotlight. The parents of the children portraying the living dead and crash victims take their seats in folding chairs arranged in front of it, with boxes of tissue placed at the end of each row.
The climax of the Every 15 Minutes program begins as the living dead and crash victims walk single file into the darkened gym, each placing a red rose on top of the coffin. Most have transformed back into their regular selves, slightly dressed-up in slacks and dresses, except for Chavez, who has his “missing” arm tucked inside his shirt, and Steiner, who wears an orange jumpsuit and shuffles in wrist and ankle cuffs.
The opening chords of Panic! at the Disco’s song “High Hopes” fill the gym as everyone takes their seats. Overnight, a local production company has edited together a 23-minute video filling in the narrative gaps around yesterday’s simulated crash, which is projected onto the gym wall after everyone takes their seats. After a short party scene in a grass field, Steiner, playing drunk and high, climbs into a car with Chavez, and they commence their doomed ride. We see the crash site again—this time from multiple angles, including aerial shots supplied by a drone—before watching the ancillary hospital and courtroom scenes. Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” plays over the final shot of a tombstone superimposed with Beezley’s name.
“The senior class has experienced three deaths, we know what it’s like. And then to have the Grim Reaper come in during fourth period and just start yelling a person’s name, I don’t know, it feels ... really tactless.”
The lights come up, and a CHP officer introduces Alexis Diaz and her family. Diaz, a member of the “Living Dead,” is one of two students chosen to read aloud the letter she penned to her family while sequestered. Dressed in a floral jumpsuit, the dark-haired teen sits across from her parents and sister, in front of the coffin.
“I died today,” she begins tearfully. “And this is what I never got to tell you. I appreciate each and every one of you so much.” After she finishes, it’s her father’s turn to read aloud the letter that he, along with the rest of the parents, was instructed to write to his child during their absence. “There is a hole in our family,” he reads as hundreds look on from the bleachers, at one point pushing up his dark sunglasses to wipe away tears.
Finally, principal Garrett arrives to officially close the two-day presentation, reminding students that there is counseling available if they need it, before releasing them into the bright day.
“I thought they did a pretty good job,” a 17-year-old senior tells me soon after the mock funeral ends, when I ask him what he thought of the program. “It really scared me to be smart about driving and not to do drugs and alcohol.” Every student I talk to provides a similar answer, although there are criticisms, mainly that freshman and sophomore classes should have been included in the assemblies.
One senior, clustered with three other students around the fake obits posted on the quad, tells me that the Grim Reaper and “foam Halloween gravestones” were “in really poor taste.” His companions agree. “The senior class has experienced three deaths, and we know what it’s like,” says one girl. “And it’s horrible. And then to have the Grim Reaper come in during fourth period and just start yelling a person’s name, I don’t know, it feels—” She pauses. “Really tactless.”
But even these students like the program overall, praising the car-crash simulation and assembly. When well-executed, as Ponderosa High School’s version was, Every 15 Minutes—with its thumping helicopters, puddles of fake blood, and real tears—has a cinematic impact dictated by a handbook that is essentially a script.
“A lot of the times we say, ‘Thank you, I’m sorry, thank you, I’m sorry,’” a CHP officer who helped coordinate this year’s event at Ponderosa told me. “Because it’s emotionally wrecking to some of these parents.”
Yesterday, hours after the crash scene, the parents of the Every 15 Minutes participants assembled in one of the school’s stark white cafeterias, lit with slanting evening sun, to process the day’s events and listen to a talk from a CHP officer. Earlier, a fleet of first-responder chaplains had been dispatched to each parent’s home or business to deliver the news of their child’s “death.”
“They might cry, they might fall to their knees, it could be anything,” said chaplain Betsy Vanderpool of how parents react in the moment.
One mother explained to the group, her voice breaking, that the hardest part was when the chaplain moved on to the “tactical things,” asking her what she’d like to do with her daughter’s body.
After a few minutes of emotional sharing, a CHP officer showed them photos of a real fatal crash and urged them to sit down with their kids and map out a plan of what to do if they find themselves in a situation where they may drive drunk, or get in a car with a driver who is drunk. This is the kind of messaging experts say is important to impart to parents, but it’s not a guaranteed component of the Every 15 Minutes program. While the handbook lays out in minute-to-minute detail the stages of the simulated crash, the messages delivered at the student retreat and parent gatherings are largely left up to the schools, as is the selection of student participants, who tend to be class officers, athletes, and other student leaders. “At risk” youth may be included at the school’s discretion, according to the handbook. Whatever programming they settle on, the individualized attention reaches only the small portion of the student body selected for the program and their parents, who must be engaged enough with their kids to sign permission slips, absorb false-death notices, and attend meetings.
Evan Chavez’s father, Andres, initially balked at the idea of letting his son participate in the bloody crash scene. “One of my greatest fears in life is burying my children,” he explains. But in the end, he signed the permission slips because he hopes that “the kids who need it are paying attention.”