Pitman High School senior Armani Bustos’ plans of graduating high school were cut short Thursday when she decided to get behind the wheel of a car after drinking, killing three of her classmates and being incarcerated.
Luckily for Bustos, both her 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. The program returned after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic.
“We could enforce laws all day long, but our job is to educate youth so we don’t have to enforce those laws,” said CHP Officer Thomas Olsen. “In my belief, this is one of the best programs CHP sponsors. Getting a DUI is a decision and we try to get into these schools and empower them to be leaders in their communities.”
According to Olsen, last year Stanislaus County investigated 76 fatality collisions while the year before they investigated 45. Something new to the program is they are now incorporating the dangers of impaired driving, such as using marijuana and prescription drugs, as well as drinking.
When Bustos’ vehicle collided with another car full of her peers in a simulated car crash at PHS Thursday morning three students lost their lives. EMTs worked frantically to save them as the rest of the school watched on, but all three succumbed to their injuries. Nathaniel Piro 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.
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 that can come from texting while operating a vehicle. Bustos, 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 was a very emotional and crazy time,” said Alyssa Evans, who spent the night away from her family. “Seeing all my friends like this is surreal, it makes you really think about the consequences.”
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.
“It’s very surreal, they’re gone the whole day and that’s very impactful,” said Cliff Lewis, whose son was one of the students pulled from class. “The message I think they got is that your actions affect everything as you need to be responsible and be safe.”
Students were moved by the testimonies of the family members and came away with a strong message.
“What got me was seeing the families,” said senior Giselle Miranda. “It was really eye opening to see that this could really happen; especially to your close friends.”
“People need to think responsibly and think about others,” said senior Mesmin Reynoso. “You have to think about how your family is going to react and what you’re going to put them through.”
Funding for this program was provided by a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety, through the National Highway Traffic Administration