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Grim Reaper Teaches Local Students About The Dangers Of Drunk, Distracted Driving

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Kristin Malavenda/WBAA News
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According to Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, 198 people died on Indiana roadways last year due to drunk driving, and nearly 2,400 more were injured.

And according to the federal government, in 2013 more than 3,000 people nationwide were killed in crashes involving drivers who were texting or otherwise distracted.

A program this week at a local high school was meant to encourage students to make better choices.

The Grim Reaper was wandering the halls of Lafayette’s McCutcheon High School this week. A black-cloaked figure carrying a large scythe walked silently into classrooms and removed students, who were then wheeled away on a stretcher while an officer read their obituary.

It was all part of a program called “Every 15 Minutes,” designed to give students a more realistic experience of the sometimes deadly effects of drinking and texting while driving.

Ryleigh Turner is one of the students who “died.” She says it was awkward when the Grim Reaper came for her, but it quickly became emotional. 

“It did kind of make you think about the fact that at any moment, you know, one of your classmates could just be up and gone. Just like that," says Turner. "Because the whole ride back to the auditorium from my classroom I was thinking about how my stuff was just sitting there and it was just an empty spot.”

Jordan Popp is a sophomore at McCutcheon. She was in the cafeteria when the Grim Reaper came and took away her friend’s boyfriend.

“And I lost it. I started crying, I mean, I’ve already cried three times today. Even if you don’t know that person, you gotta think if it was real they’re taking somebody’s child that they loved and cherished," says Popp. "And they had their own life that they lived and they had much more of a life to live. You can’t just take that away from somebody if you’re texting or if you’re drunk.”

A mock crash in the school’s parking lot was intended to drive the point home about the consequences of drinking or texting while driving. First responders cut victims out of a car, the suspected drunk driver was given a field sobriety test and taken into custody, and the Tippecanoe County coroner took away a body.

Meanwhile, off campus, parents like Sandy Ryan were being notified of their children’s deaths:

“I went out to walk the dog and I saw the sheriff’s car come in," says Ryan. "I got my husband and we went outside. And he told us that our daughter had been involved in a car accident at McCutcheon High School involving a drunk driver and that she had passed away and that we had to go to Soller-Baker to identify her body.  And, yes, we knew that it was pretend but it was still devastating,…just devastating.”

The “dead” students had no access to cell phones or laptops for the rest of the school day and overnight while they participated in a retreat to process the events of the day.

Ryleigh Turner says the separation from her mother was the most emotional part of the experience for her.

“I mean I really just wanted to call her last night and tell her I was sorry for some of the things that I had done," says Turner. "Just tell her that I love her.”

Junior Margaret Eros was also claimed by the Grim Reaper. She agrees being cut off from friends and family was the toughest part but says she’s grateful for the time she and the other students spent reflecting on their lives.

“We were talking about the things that we could change if we had a second chance at life," says Eros. "And one of the things that I said was we don’t need a second chance. We’re all still here, unlike the people who do need a second chance, and we have this life and we can change all those things. And that’s what I’ve gotten out of this.”

McCutcheon History and Economics teacher Dennise Jordan is the staff coordinator for the program. She thinks it’s more powerful than simply lecturing students about the dangers of drunk and distracted driving.

“When you see the mock accident I think, it really brings it home," says Jordan. "Because it’s as realistic as you can get without someone really passing. And I think when you see everything that goes into that, how horrific it is just from one bad decision that you might make one day, I think that’s very impactful.”

At an assembly Wednesday, students heard from families affected by drinking and texting while driving.

Terri Knowles’ son Daniel participated in the very first 15 minutes at Harrison High School in 2000. She says he started to make bad choices after he was told he was too short to make the school’s basketball team. He struggled with substance abuse for years, but had been sober for 18 months prior to his death from a heroin overdose in 2011. She hopes sharing his story helps others avoid the same fate.

“The way they do this program, I think they do an awesome job," says Knowles. "And hopefully it will open these kids eyes that it can happen to them. Because so many think ‘Oh if I try it once’ or “If I do this,’ and that’s not how it works. It’ll grab ahold of you and it won’t let go.”

The Every 15 Minutes program rotates between the two high schools in the Tippecanoe School Corporation, so next year the Grim Reaper will be roaming the halls of Harrison High School.

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