Tioga High senior Ada Pollock said her heart stopped for a moment on Friday when she looked into the casket and saw her own face.
The mock funeral was intended to be for one of Pollock’s classmates who was “killed” in a staged drunk-driving accident the previous day on the Tioga High School campus in Groveland. A mirror was placed inside the casket to drive home the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol.
“It became a lot more real in that instant,” Tioga High sophomore Monika Medina said of her reaction to seeing her face in the mirror. “It was very eye opening.”
The two-day simulation was part of a program called Every 15 Minutes, funded by a grant from California Highway Patrol, that aims to prevent teens from getting behind the wheel while drunk.
Schools can apply for funding from CHP to put on the event.
Other schools in Tuolumne County have staged similar mock accidents and funerals in the past, but this was the first time Tioga High has done it.
“I feel like driving up here is so different and that kids need to understand the consequences,” said Rebecca Dotson, the school’s principal secretary who helped organize the event. “Around every corner you need to be aware of a rock or a deer.”
Dotson said the small, rural school has 41 students, all of whom attended the assemblies on both days.
The program is named after the statistic that every 15 minutes someone in the United States dies in alcohol-related crash. A student was taken out of a class every 15 minutes prior to Friday’s funeral assembly to further drive home the message.
Students who were pulled from a class were referred to as the “Living Dead” and all wore white face paint with black around their eyes as they walked into the Tioga High gymnasium pushing a casket on wheels.
A video of Thursday’s staged accident was projected on a large screen.
At the start of the video, Tioga High senior Joshua Skelley is seen bloodied and lying on the hood of a car that had collided head-on with another vehicle as somber music plays in the background.
A person dressed as a grim reaper circles the vehicle as Tioga High junior Sierra Miller screams she couldn’t feel her legs.
First responders arrive and pull Miller from the vehicle as a CHP officer administers a breathalyzer on the driver of the other vehicle, Tioga High senior Jesse Brown, who is arrested after the test reveals he had been drinking alcohol.
Miller is taken to a hospital and an EMT informs her father she’s paralyzed from the waist down, while a Tuolumne County Sheriff’s deputy asks Skelley’s parents to identify their dead son.
Skelley’s mother, Tari Skelley, unzips the body bag and begins to cry. She said after the assembly that her tears in that moment were real despite the simulated situation.
“Even knowing it was fake, we held that close,” she said of her and her husband’s reaction to seeing their son in a body bag.
The video concludes with Brown in handcuffs and dressed in a red Tuolumne County Jail jumpsuit being walked by CHP Officer Steve Griefer into the courthouse at 60 N. Washington Street in Sonora, where Tuolumne County Superior Court Judge Kate Powell Segerstrom sentences him to four years and six months in state prison.
Segerstrom informs Brown that Skelley was an aspiring helicopter pilot who planned to join the military, while Miller won’t be able to use a full-ride scholarship she recently received to play Division I softball because she’s now confined to a wheelchair.
After the video, Skelley’s mother read a letter she wrote about her son as if he had actually died.
“You’re not here, and I don’t know if I’ll be OK,” she said as she wiped tears from her eyes. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be OK.”
Summer Avery, a senior at Tioga High who helped organize the simulation as president of the school’s Interact Club, wept as she read a letter addressed to her mother as though she had died in alcohol-related accident.
“I know I disappointed you and my brothers,” she said. “You had such high expectations for me.”
Tioga High Principal Ryan Dutton also got emotional while reflecting on the experience.
“Even though we know what happened yesterday isn’t real, the emotions are real,” he said. “It makes me think of my kids.”
Colin Giles, 28, of Groveland, shared a story about severely injuring himself while driving drunk, while Zack Selmser, 37, also of Groveland, talked about how he received two DUIs.
Giles said he grew up in Groveland and graduated from Tioga High School in 2007. He started to drink alcohol during his junior year as a way to cope with the divorce of his parents.
On Feb. 13, 2017, Giles said he was driving drunk and went to pass a bus from the school that had pulled in front of him. He doesn’t remember what happened after that, but he crashed into a telephone pole and suffered major head injuries that required five brain surgeries.
Pictures were projected on the screen behind Giles that showed him while he was recovering in a hospital bed.
“Probably some of you were on that school bus, so I’m sorry for that,” Giles said. “I could have hurt you or killed somebody else in the process, and I just didn’t realize what was going on.”
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