Pitman High School senior TJ Sullivan’s plans of attending California State University, Northridge, this fall were cut short Thursday when the straight A student decided to get behind the wheel of a car after drinking, killing three of his classmates and earning himself a sentence of 33 years behind bars.
Luckily for Sullivan, both his actions and their consequences were part of Every 15 Minutes – a two-day program that shows high school students the real-life ramifications of drinking and driving.
When Sullivan’s vehicle collided with another car full of his peers in a simulated car crash at PHS Thursday morning, students Sonny Uppal, Bianca Garcia and Fallon Evans lost their lives. EMTs worked frantically to save them as the rest of the school watched on, but all three succumbed to their injuries. Mariah Burciaga walked away as the crash’s sole survivor.
Every aspect of Every 15 Minutes is meant to be realistic for students, from the gory crash scene to the very real possibility that a drunk driver could rob them of someone they love in the blink of an eye. Students are typically selected based on their influence on campus, and the school tries to select a student from every social niche.
“It impacts you even if you don’t know some of the kids, and you still feel the hurt of losing them even though it’s not real,” said senior Madi Ball, who had gathered with the rest of the school in the gym Friday morning for a mock funeral. “You never know what can happen, so this reminds us not to take that risk.”
In addition to students who participated in the car crash scene on Thursday, others were pulled from their classes by the grim reaper throughout the day, with a student leaving class every 15 minutes – the average amount of time between each DUI-related fatality across the nation.
Each student who “dies” in the program becomes part of a one-night, informational seminar that instills in them the dangers of drunk driving. Students also learn about distracted driving and, specifically, the devastating effects than can come from texting while operating a vehicle. Sullivan, the drunk driver, spent the night in jail.
During this time, the students don’t have their phones and are unable to communicate with their friends or their family, the latter of which is informed about their child’s death by a visit from the California Highway Patrol.
“It’s pretty real, especially the way they put it on. It doesn’t matter if it’s real or not when you have a chaplain show up at your door with a police officer…it hits home,” said Laura Leonardo, whose daughter was pulled out of class by the grim reaper. “There’s been kind of a void without her.”
During Friday’s funeral for both the victims of the car crash and the other students who died on Thursday, victims and their parents read letters to one another, speaking words that they would say if the unspeakable had never happened.
Before Turlock Police Department officer Mayra Lewis read her letter to her daughter who passed in the car crash scene, Garcia, she reflected about the whirlwind of Thursday’s events on Facebook.
“While I am at work I usually have a mission, do what is needed…see it, live it, go home and forget about it. Even after seeing countless accidents over the years, minor injury or fatalities, they could not desensitize me enough or prepare me to see Bianca in ‘this’ situation,” Lewis wrote. “Though this was staged and I knew about it well in advance…I lost my composure and this doesn’t happen often.”
Leonardo didn’t read her letter out loud at the funeral, but hopes that her words and the Every 15 Minutes experience leave a lasting impact on her daughter.
“I know my daughter doesn’t drink but if she ever did, or if someone she was with ever did, I would want her to make the right decision,” she said. “I think this hits home with a lot of people – not just the people that were in it.”
Senior Amanda Davis watched the funeral with her classmates and believes the memory will stay with students for quite some time – especially in future moments where alcohol may be involved.
“It’s going to hit all of us that this is more realistic than we think,” she said. “One drink can ruin everything.”
With the school’s prom taking place this weekend, the message of Every 15 Minutes was all the more important, Principal Amy Curd reminded students.
“You all know not to drink and drive, text and drive or do drugs and drive, yet everyday people make poor decisions that affect themselves and others forever. We want all of you to remember what you have seen and heard, and to make mature, wise decisions,” said Curd. “For you drivers, don’t make a decision that makes you a potential killer, and for you passengers, don’t make a decision that makes you a potential victim.”