One bad night took the life and potential of one student. It took the promise of another and still it will affect others in ways that have yet to be seen. “You had one bad night,” William R. Greer Jr., associate judge of the Charles County Circuit Court, said during a sentencing hearing. “Unfortunately, that’s all it takes.”
Fortunately, it was all a drill for Every 15 Minutes, a national program that raises awareness among young drivers of the dangers of distracted and impaired driving.
The sentencing held at the Charles County Courthouse March 26 capped off a day of activities at Thomas Stone and North Point high schools. A mock accident staged in the parking lots of the schools showed the aftermath of a car crash between two vehicles. In one car, a group of students sit screaming after slamming head on into a car being driven by another student in a staged car accident. At Thomas Stone, senior Alexander Richards was “thrown” through the windshield and onto the hood of the car, dying as a result. At North Point, Hannah McMillen, a senior, was the group’s fatality.
“This crash site is a simulation of what we see way too often,” said Dan Stevens, coordinator of the Southern Maryland Regional Training Center for the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, who has 50 years of experience as a first responder. “The dangers are out there and they’re real.”
“The last thing we want to do is hear we have lost young people to something that could have been prevented,” PFC Lewis Payne, school resource officer at Stone, said.
The program is coordinated by the Waldorf Volunteer Fire Department, and takes its name from the statistic that every 15 minutes in the United States a person is killed or seriously injured in an impaired or distracted driving incident.
As part of the program, every 15 minutes a student is pulled out of class by a figure dressed as the Grim Reaper and their obituary is read to their peers. The student has their face painted a ghostly white and they return to class, only they can’t talk — they surrender their phones, too — or interact with anyone.
Jessica Monday, deputy chief EMS 3, said cutting communications is intentional. “It’s supposed to hit home,” she explained during a preparation meeting with participating students and their parents. “You can’t talk if you’re dead.”
On the day of the program, juniors and seniors watch the mock crash scene, seeing emergency service workers respond and the measures it takes to extract victims from a wreckage. They see a classmate (mock) arrested for driving while intoxicated or texting, they see another loaded into the back of a hearse.
Arriving at the courthouse in La Plata, the reckless drivers are put on trial. Attorneys Paul Halliday for the state and Hammad Matin for the defense argue for their clients. “A selfish decision brought us here today,” Halliday said.
After trial, North Point and Thomas Stone students head to Lions Camp Merrick in Nanjemoy to discuss the day’s events and write letters to their parents. On Tuesday, each school held an assembly with Stevens, Charles County Sheriff Troy Berry and Superintendent of Schools Kimberly Hill as guest speakers. At North Point, junior Lexi Rye and senior Jordyn Best read the letters they wrote to their families. The school’s principal, Dan Kaple, asked students to think about what they had seen the day before. “You see how much you are cared for by your community,” he said. “A decision you make today; you’ll carry with you for the rest of your lives.”
“You matter,” Hill said. “You matter to a lot of people. Listen and look out for each other. You know when someone has been drinking, or there’s too many people in the car, or the music’s too loud and everyone has a cellphone in their face. You hear the voice of mom or dad or your guardian on your shoulder telling you ‘This is dangerous.’ Show the courage to get out of that car and somewhere safe.”
Emily Martin, a Thomas Stone senior, who was part of the mock crash, said seeing the reality of an accident — even a staged reality — is beneficial. “People don’t really pay attention to fliers or sound bites. Hopefully this will mean something to at least one person in the audience.”
Charles County Public Schools provides 26,900 students in grades prekindergarten through 12 with an academically challenging education. Located in Southern Maryland, Charles County Public Schools has 36 schools that offer a technologically advanced, progressive and high quality education that builds character, equips for leadership and prepares students for life, careers and higher education.
The Charles County public school system does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age or disability in its programs, activities or employment practices. For inquiries, please contact Patricia Vaira, Title IX/ADA/Section 504 Coordinator (students) or Nikial M. Majors, Title IX/ADA/Section 504 coordinator (employees/ adults), at Charles County Public Schools, Jesse L. Starkey Administration Building,P.O. Box 2770, La Plata, MD 20646; 301-932-6610/301-870-3814. For special accommodations call 301-934-7230 or TDD 1-800-735-2258 two weeks prior to the event.