Every 15 minutes: Prairie students demonstrate effect of death in impaired-driving wrecks

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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Did you know?

Last year in Washington, three 16-year-olds and one 17-year-old died in traffic collisions, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

photoPrairie High School junior Amanda Denson, 16, applies makeup after she “died” in a car crash Tuesday during the Every 15 Minutes program. Students were removed from class by the Grim Reaper and a Sheriff’s deputy, made up and returned to class. The program educates students about the consequences of driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

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photoPhotos by Steven Lane/The Columbian The Grim Reaper, played by senior Josh Inman, 18, and Deputy Dwaine Bowden summon Prairie High School junior Justice Wagner, 17, right, from class, as she has just been "killed" in an alcohol-related crash.

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When Elizabeth Perry entered the choir room, the students ceased singing and stared. She wore a black robe, white face paint and an empty expression.

With the Grim Reaper at his side, Prairie High School's resource officer Deputy Dwaine Bowden told the class that Perry died in an alcohol-related crash today, on her 18th birthday, while returning home from a party. For the rest of the day, she could not talk to her peers.

The act was part of the Every 15 Minutes program that looks to educate high school students in a visceral way about the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. About 20 students participated in the two-day program, which involves presentations from sheriff's deputies and nurses with PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center. It culminates in today's senior class assembly, which will include a drunken-driving skit performed by the student volunteers.

Taylor Millard was first introduced to the project two years ago, as a sophomore, when his friends participated and he couldn't talk to them.

"You can see how it would be, not having someone there because of drunk driving," he said. "One life can have a big influence."

The students said not talking or smiling all day was challenging but a good learning experience. After school, before they could wipe off their ghoulish makeup, the students went to the Brush Prairie Cemetery to take photos and reflect on a day of being dead. As they walked across the parking lot toward the cemetery, other students stared and a couple of cars honked as the group of "ghosts."

Through their efforts in the program, the high school is looking to secure a $500 grant, sponsored by State Farm Insurance and the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

When Every 15 Minutes launched in the 1990s, someone died in an alcohol-related crash every 15 minutes. The most recent numbers state that one person dies every 48 minutes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since Prairie started the program 17 years ago, school administrators have reported fewer drug- and alcohol-related incidents at prom, such as car accidents or students showing up drunk, said Cindi Schroeder, prevention educator for Battle Ground Public Schools. Some have even contacted the program's organizers to say they gave up their keys at prom and found a designated driver.

"We feel fortunate that we're able to measure it in some way," Schroeder said.

With prom on Saturday, the program should open some people's eyes, said Josh Inman, 18, who played the Grim Reaper on Tuesday. The students said they already know not to drink and drive, but the experience reminded them to be aware of their surroundings whenever they're in a car. You never know when the driver in the next lane may be under the influence.

A crumpled Subaru Impreza, with deployed air bags and shattered windows, was parked in front of the school. Roy Thorp, 76, drove that vehicle Aug. 16, 2011, on Northwest Hayes Road in Woodland. He was heading to a board meeting at the Cedar Creek Grist Mill when a Mustang convertible driven by Tyler G. Peabody, then 20, hit the car head-on as he rounded a curve at 80 mph. Thorp died in the collision and Peabody was sentenced to four years in prison for vehicular homicide.

Peabody's blood-alcohol concentration at the time of the crash was 0.16 percent, twice the legal limit.

Lorie Shaddix is scheduled to speak at today's senior assembly. Six years ago, her daughter, Krissy, and Jessica Blanck, both 21 and both of Camas, were killed when the car they were in was struck by a minivan driven by Theresa M. Nickelby, 37, of Vancouver. Nickelby drank at the Golden Star Restaurant & Lounge in Gresham, Ore., before getting onto state Highway 14 going the wrong direction. Later tests revealed her blood-alcohol concentration was 0.15 percent.


Patty Hastings: 360-735-4513; twitter.com/col_cops; patty.hastings@columbian.com.