Around lunchtime Thursday, sirens will wail in Canyon Country, a helicopter will land on the football field of Canyon High School and bring first responders to the scene of at least two bloodied, crumpled vehicles. Some students will be taken away in a sheriff’s patrol car, others in ambulances. Some will leave in a Coroner’s van.
Every 15 Minutes – a program that reminds us that someone dies in an alcohol-related or attention-impaired accident every quarter-hour – is a wake-up call for young drivers and their families.
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In Canyon Country, it’s as if the snooze button has been pushed, with the program coming quick on the heels of a fatal accident that claimed the life of Dakota Demott and severely injured driver Colt Doherty. Excessive speed was one of the causes of the fatal crash.
The Every 15 Minutes program takes a pre-selected group of students – chosen not because they are problems or challenged, but in the hopes that they will be ambassadors – with the Grim Reaper given the task of taking them from their classrooms, followed by a police officer reading an obituary written by the “victim” parents.
Those students participate in the mock crash at lunch, which is required attendance for juniors and seniors – those who are most likely behind the wheel outside of classtime.
“Those kids get affected 100 percent more than the rest of the student body,” said Deputy David Shoemaker, who coordinates the program at the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s station. “They get an up-close and personal look.”
Those students are the ones leaving campus in the various vehicles after the crash. They are the ones who go to the hospital, to the morgue, to the courtroom where the offending driver is given a hearing and sentenced. They visit the jail and gather at Eternal Valley mortuary to help pick out a casket.
Shoemaker said that the weight of the casket isn’t the biggest shock.
“One of the things we do is take them into the chapel after they’ve gone through the casket room,” he explained. “One of the huge eye-openers is the funeral directors who remind them about their parents’ planning college careers for however long the family might have been saving. They tell them ‘you were just killed, that $20,000 your parents have been saving is now buying that casket, that headstone and the services. They have no clue what a funeral costs and what it can do to a family budget.
“Then the kids carry a casket out and put it in the hearse. The perspective they get is definitely different.”
Later, the core group of students go to a local hotel with Shoemaker and Sgt. Richard Cohen, who runs the traffic bureau in Santa Clarita. There, a round-robin discussion is held, with public service videos about the consequences of drinking and driving and texting and driving shown.
Shoemaker said that there is one film that, no matter how many times he sees it, still makes him cry.
“Those kids are absolutely bawling,” he said. “Nobody doesn’t let loose in that program, because we hit them so hard. Unfortunately there is no way of doing that with the whole student body.”
Along with the movies, guest speakers share their perspectives with the students. Parents such as Tom and Alice Renolds, who lost their sons Danny and Timmy in an alcohol- and speed-related crash in 2000; Nick and Donna Blair, whose daughter Lauren was a championship softball player at Saugus High before she was killed by a drunk driver as she returned home from a movie night; and Robert and Kelly Arcos, whose daughter, Chelsea, killed two people who were changing a tire on the freeway after she had been drinking and driving without a license.
“They (the Arcos’) don’t defend their daughter at all, they talk about how their lives have turned upside down with consequences the kids have never thought of,” Shoemaker said.
Chelsea has been serving an eight-year sentence in a women’s prison in Central California. She is scheduled to complete her sentence soon.
“They talk about how their daughter has been beat up in prison,” he continued. “Now she’s a convicted felon, her mother talks about what her life is going to be, her emotional and mental state, everything you don’t think about.”
“We stand back and let them just keep going,” Shoemaker continued. “We’ve had parents tell us that their kids call them after they see the program and ask them to pick them up from parties or that they don’t want to get into a car with a friend who might have been drinking. The ones that take it the hardest are the girls who listen to the dads tell stories about their daughters. They didn’t want to be that daddy’s girl that was killed by a drunk driver or make that decision to be the drunk driver.”
The problem, Shoemaker and Cohen both say, is that kids are still having the accidents, evidenced by the Sand Canyon crash.
“Either the word’s not being passed on, it’s wearing off or they just don’t want to hear it,” Shoemaker added.
The sheriff’s department, working with the California Highway Patrol, makes the Every 15 Minutes presentation to three schools a year. It was held at Saugus in the fall, Canyon is this week and in the spring, it will be held at Valencia. Next year, the cycle will include Hart, West Ranch (where the CHP will handle it, since the school is in unincorporated area), Golden Valley and Bowman High.
Shoemaker said that the toll on the officers is rough as well, especially making the “death notifications.”
“You know they’re pretend, but they’re still hard. They’re (the parents) breaking down and crying, even though they knew it was coming. You almost want to break down with them – if it’s this hard for them to do this for pretend – how hard would it be if it was 3 in the morning and they didn’t know it was coming?”
They say that the worst call a parent can get is that their child was killed, but running a very close second is the call some parents get – that their child killed someone. Another unenviable position is that of the property owner where the crash – and sometimes death – occurred. There are a whole different set of problems that come with that, not only is the incident horrific, but the feeling continues when memorials are set up by the community left behind.
Ken Fisher comes home from his nightly studio job to a home in Sand Canyon glowing with dozens of candles at the foot of his corner oak tree – the one hit by Doherty a few weeks ago. City workers have cleaned up the corner and removed many of the tributes, but the grief persists – so much so that the Fisher family is having difficulty moving on.
The Fishers, Renolds and the father of a young man lucky enough to survive his injuries in a September crash, Nick Wolitarsky, met with city and sheriff’s officials recently to address the problems of speeding in the canyon.
With raw emotions, John Wolitarsky thanked Ken Fisher for saving his son’s life (Fisher was the first on the scene, with the car landing in his front yard) and joined those asking what could be done. After a discussion of possible traffic barriers and signage, all involved silently – and reluctantly – accepted the answer no one can change but the drivers involved.
Every 15 Minutes will be held Thursday at Canyon High on Thursday. Will the drivers be listening?