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Votes

Mock Tragedy or Sober Truth?

Churchill students stage bloody accident to discourage drunk, distracted driving.

— Rockville Fire and Rescue personnel covered two Winston Churchill High School students in shrouds last Thursday, Oct 4, at a single car accident scene directly in front of the Potomac school.

Another student was handcuffed around lunchtime after failing a field sobriety test in front of crowds of her peers, while a fourth teen was rushed by ambulance to Shady Grove Adventist Hospital.

“Every 15 minutes, someone in the United States is killed in an alcohol-related or distracted driving traffic collision. This is your opportunity to make a difference,” according to Every 15 Minutes, a two-day educational program held at the school last week.

The tragedy in front of the school may have been staged, but the truth and statistics were sobering.

“There are no second chances,” said Jim Vagonis, first deputy chief with the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department.

Vagonis says he and his colleagues receive calls every weekend for real-life scene like the one staged in front of the Churchill last Thursday. Thursday’s scene included makeup real enough to portray brain splatter.

“The only difference is we don’t have the Grim Reaper standing over the crash,” said Vagonis, to a filled auditorium of more than 2,000 Churchill students the following morning. “What you saw is exactly what we do, and we run those calls every week.”

“There are no second chances.” — Jim Vagonis, Rockville Volunteer Fire Department

Sean Mayhew, a former Wootton High School student, was 19 when he killed two people in a car accident at 2:11 a.m. on Nov. 19, 2006 on Seven Locks Road after consuming alcohol before driving. This was real, not part of the Churchill role-play.

Parent Volunteers

Co-Chairs: Geri Shapiro, Amy Smith; Subcomittee Chairs: Elaine Arndt, Tracey Gage, Karen Kalicka, Barbara Lieber, Semi Nasseri, Eileen Ascher, Andrea Bai, Zuzana Bajcsy, Aruna Basappa, Cindy Beauregard, Kim Belvin, Sharon Bland, Robin Brown, Minnie Chatterjee, Jill Cohen, Sheila Coleman, Katherine Dodson, Lisa Fisher, Sally Freeman, Betsy Goldstein, Roya Hakimzadeh, Laurie Halverson, Gail Hubberman, Gail Hyman, Lauren Kline, Angeli Mather, Claudia Miller, Dana McClive, Mary Ellen Mengucci, Lori Rodman, Denise Schleckser, Marlo Sims, Julie Weinberg, Kathi Whitman, Taryn Zimmerman

“You can’t reverse that,” he told Churchill students. Mayhew pleaded guilty to two counts of vehicular manslaughter and will be on probation until 2014 after spending 21 months in jail.

He remembers getting out of the car the night of the accident, “basically unharmed,” he said. “At the time, I was thankful.”

He walked halfway to the bodies of the two people he killed when he said his feet felt like bricks as he tried to continue to the bodies.

“My actions killed two people. I wake up every morning, every day knowing I can’t change it,” he said.

TEXTING AND DRIVING is another form of distracted driving covered by the Every 15 Minutes program.

Drivers are 23 times more likely to be involved in an accident while texting, according to statistics given to students.

Churchill students were shown film footage of families and friends forever changed by teenagers killed when texting while driving, and examples of what they were texting just before they died.

“LOL”

“Where you at?”

“Yeah”

“Where R”

“Is that worth losing your life over?” the film asked. “Is it worth it?”

“WE HAVE TO THINK about it,” said Dr. Joan Benz, Churchill principal. “If parents don’t know what’s going on, they are living in a fantasy world.”

She said students have a “duty” not only to protect themselves, but a “responsibility to protect their friends.”

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said his father died largely because he drank himself to death. “Do I care about drinking in the community? You bet I do,” he said.

But he warned the student body. “These are not accidents, these are crimes,” he said. “People who suffer these kinds of losses don’t have it go away.”

Before introducing Mayhew, whom he had prosecuted, Assistant State’s Attorney Steve Chaikin told students to be aware of the danger zones since one third of the students will be involved or will know someone involved in a serious accident caused by distracted driving or alcohol-related accidents.

“Stand up and recognize when you need to get involved,” he said. “You know what your friends are and what they are capable of. You need to be thinking just like chess, seven steps ahead of where you are.”

He urged students to role play with parents, to develop code language with parents when they need a ride, to figure out how to say no without feeling bad, to be ready to change situations that could put themselves or their friends at risk.

“Let’s be candid here, you know a lot more than what you tell your parents,” he said.

“We’re not naïve about this, you may need to get away from a situation in which you are not comfortable. You’ve got personal decisions to make,” McCarthy said.

“Stand up and be bold and save somebody’s life,” Chaikin said.

“If parents don’t know what’s going on, they are living in a fantasy world.” — Dr. Joan Benz, Churchill principal

THE DAY BEFORE at Churchill, a “grim reaper” pulled a student from class every 15 minutes to demonstrate a “symbolic death.” The student wasn’t permitted to speak the rest of the day and a police officer read the student’s obituary, words that students wrote to their parents to say what they never got the chance to say.

“Dear Mom and Dad,” wrote Shira Rodman, as one example. “I never got the chance to tell you how much I love you guys. …

“From day one, you have warned me about the dangers of driving under the influence or getting into a car where the driver was impaired. You have told me countless times that no matter what condition I was in or how late it was to call you if I knew I could not get home safely.

Student Volunteers

Lindsey Abrams, Michelle Ahn, Brianna Burke, Robert Chang, Chelsea Finfer, Danielle Fisher, Andrew Fordyce, Orr Genish, Rachel Glick, Jillian Goss Holmes, Ben Harris, Christina Lee, Jessica Lee, Morgen Lewis, Chrissy Lorica, Julia Miller, Amber Moore, Tali Preuss, Carly Raizon, Zach Raizon, Andres Roa, Shira Rodman, Guransh Singh, Jonathan Sosner, Danny Welch, Dara Winter, Skylar Whitman, Michelle Zimmerman

“I should have listened. …

“Please tell Coby that I love him and am sorry that I made a decision that changed our lives forever.”

Carly Raizon was the teenager in front of the school driven to Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in a theatrical attempt to save her life. “It had a big impact on me. Seeing my brother and father was intense. Seeing his emotion, even if it was fake, was difficult.”

“I hope people take this to heart, that this could happen to anyone of us,” said Rodman.

Amy Kossoff Smith, co-chair of the Every 15 Minutes Committee, has felt strongly about communicating the importance of safe driving since she was a student at Churchill who started a "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk" ad campaign in The Observer before her graduation in 1985.

Now, she is a Churchill parent with three children, one who will be driving “in a matter of months,” she said.

“I see how fast-paced their lives are, thanks — or no thanks — to technology. So getting a message like this across to teens is a challenge to say the least,” said Smith. “This program did have some ‘shock and awe’ associated, but I think it was an incredibly powerful way to communicate the message in a way that would be memorable.”

Mayhew, the former Wootton student, remembers hearing the bars close in jail the first time. “It’s unforgettable,” he said. “You think that life is over.”

He now gives talks around the county with Chaikin to educate high school students.

“It’s amazing how quickly you can make a decision and how quickly that decision can turn into a tragedy,” he said.