Sobbing and stabilized on a stretcher, South Whidbey High School senior Caitlin Christensen averted her face from the gaze of her peers.
She just watched another teenager, Lauren Breslaw, be carried off in a white body bag by Island County Coroner Robert Bishop.
It was all fake, a tableau to demonstrate what can and has happened on Whidbey Island when people mix drinking and drugs with driving. But it left an impact.
“I think it is very effective,” said Hannah Cotton, a senior leadership student who organized the lesson. “When you go to a normal assembly it gets students, but when you go to a wreck scene, they see what can really happen other than just talking about it.”
“I was on the verge of tears just watching it right as it started, and I knew everything that went behind it and it still moved me.”
This class knows the lesson and the agony all too well. In November 2011, three young men, all under 24, died in an impaired driving single-car collision on Wilkinson Road. Many seniors knew those men: Robert Knight, Charles “Mack” Porter and Marcel “Mick” Poynter.
If they didn’t, they remember when one of their mothers addressed them at last year’s pre-prom assembly. Combined with the dramatization this week, Cotton hopes her peers will stay sober or at least get a ride home from prom tonight.
“They’ve realized that it’s an extremely dangerous thing,” Cotton said. “You hear about it, and once you see it with people who have been affected by it, it really gets the students.”
Whidbey Island parents and students are wary of prom driving for a reason: kids drink. Island County students take a Healthy Youth Survey every two years, and the 2010 report showed 24 percent of 10th grade students have used alcohol, and one in three high school seniors used alcohol within 30 days of taking the survey.
A 2009 Washington Traffic Safety Commission report stated there were 1,003 fatal crashes between 2004 and 2008 involving a driver age 16 to 25 that resulted in a total of 1,142 deaths. More than half of those deaths, 648, occurred in rural areas.
The highest fatality rates are on rural county roads at 27 percent and state highways at 22.2 percent, just like the roads on South Whidbey.
According to a 2012 commission report, 715 impaired driving-related serious car crash injuries occurred between midnight and 3 a.m., with another 623 between 9 and midnight. Those are the hours that South Whidbey’s prom attendees will likely hit the roads.
Cotton hoped the scenes she and her leadership classmates organized would be a last-ditch deterrent. The first scene was a head-on car crash that sent Breslaw through the windshield onto the hood. After brief resuscitation attempts by Whidbey General Hospital and South Whidbey Fire/EMS responders, Breslaw’s fake blood-covered body and prom dress were shielded with a white sheet then put in a body bag. Her date, senior Cameron Baldwin, failed a field sobriety test of walking a straight line. A Washington State Patrol trooper read him his Miranda rights, cuffed him and drove him away. Christensen was cut out of the passenger side of her car, put on a stretcher and loaded into a Whidbey General aid truck with senior Cameron Coupe and Sage Monet.
“I hope that the message is getting there to as many as we can, however we can,” said Mike Cotton, a deputy chief with South Whidbey Fire/EMS whose daughter organized the DUI prevention event.
“As a parent, I am concerned about my daughter and her friends as to what could happen on prom night.”
After the car crash scene in the bus lane near the high school’s main entrance, students attended the prom assembly. They found a mock court where Judge Alan Hancock presided over a vehicular homicide and vehicular assault case. Then came the macabre masterpiece, a faux funeral for Breslaw.
Principal John Patton spoke to the students. He has worked at the high school for several years and knew the three young men who died in November 2011. He remembered answering the phone call that the former students died in a DUI-related crash.
“John Patton was very emotional about his speech in the auditorium,” Cotton recalled. “He didn’t want any more phone calls regarding events like this.”
The junior/senior prom is May 4 at Freeland Hall.