A student is “killed” during the 15 Minutes program in Arcata Thursday. Photo by Nick Adams

It was early when I walked into the school cafeteria — the sun was just up, the grass still wet, the first bell hadn’t yet rung. I was met with the smell of coffee brewing and the sight of adults and students alike bustling around. One girl was sitting in a chair with a few other Juniors and Seniors around her holding make-up brushes and what looked like palette knives. Smearing a thick frosting-like substance over half her face and using spirit gum to make it stick, they painted deep red on top and embedded shards of glass into this thick bloody mass which covered her face and eye from forehead to cheek.

Other high school students followed the grim reaper into the cafeteria one at a time. Sitting down, each student was painted with white face, dark circles under eyes, bloody mouths and chins. These were the walking dead. These were the students whose names were whispered by the grim reaper during class, pointed at, and followed him out. These were the students whose parents would be met at home or work and find out their children had been killed this morning by a suspected intoxicated driver.

On their website, Every 15 Minutes states:

“Elemental to effective school-based alcohol prevention programs are integrated community wide initiatives to raise awareness of the consequences of underage alcohol use and to deter access through a combination of countermeasures including legal, enforcement, medical, media, and political entities. Every 15 Minutes Program is a model of both school and community-based alcohol prevention that incorporates simulated alcohol-related consequences with community elements that include students, parents, educators, school administrators, health systems, and law enforcement personnel.”

Being a volunteer Chaplain for the Arcata Police Department this day, I, along with the official Chaplain, Rev. Cindy Storres, was accompanied by an officer and the Coroner Deputy to meet the parent of each “deceased” student to perform death notifications. Every parent had already signed the release, they have already been told and reminded of today, they know exactly what to expect, and they are geared up for the knock on the door. What surprises them most is when they open the door. It doesn’t matter if you know this is mock or not, when you see an officer and a police chaplain standing on your front step, things get real. Sitting each parent down and telling them their son or daughter was crossing the street coming home from volleyball practice or chemistry lab or a friend’s house when they were struck by a suspected drunk driver. Telling this parent their child they argued with this morning, their baby, their pride and joy is dead, has been killed. It doesn’t matter if they have prepared for this all morning, it feels real. It hurts. Parents show raw, real emotion. They cry, sob, weep. They try to wipe tear stained cheeks while saying they know this isn’t real. It feels real.

Around 11 a.m., all Arcata High students flooded out of their classrooms and found their way to bleachers lining 16th Street to watch their classmates who are wrapped and stuck in cars of twisted metal. Firefighters, CHP, paramedics, APD, and the Humboldt County Coroner arrived to extract the students, cover the dead, arrest the suspected 17 year old drunk driver, and transport the wounded to Mad River Hospital. After the simulated car crash out front of the school I drove to the hospital to meet the wounded and her mom. Her mom got out of her car, walked up to the emergency room entrance and began to sob. I held her up, walking with her into the room, hearing stories about her daughter, her baby. Holding her hand, we made our way into where her daughter was lying on the gurney and were met by the doctor who explained that her daughter did succumb to her injuries. It’s mock, but it feels so real for a parent.

Then on Friday I was able to witness how painfully hard it was for the students. After the walking dead arrived and delivered a red rose to each parent, during the assembly a video was shown documenting Thursday’s tragedy. Tissues were passed down each aisle as the students relived those hours. One tearful parent shared the letter she wrote to her son, then her son did the same, sharing how he wished he could have seen his baby sister grow up. Eulogies were read by Rev. Cindy Storres about two students, sharing how important this one wild and precious life was. A student named Jessica spoke of her own personal tragedy when her brother, driving intoxicated, crashed his vehicle into a tree and was killed instantly. A judge from Humboldt County Courthouse, along with two attorneys, held a mock trial for the 17 year old intoxicated driver and sentenced her to serve eight years. Arcata’s Chief of Police, Tom Chapman, graciously and gently led each piece of the assembly and in the end there was not a single dry eye.

I met with nine parents this day, held their hands and sat with them as I or the officer told them their son or daughter had died. We asked if there was anyone we could call for them. We told them who to get in contact with to make funeral arrangements and who they should contact in order to see their child’s body. Again, it was not real but it felt real. I was changed by the experience, being used by God to be one source of comfort and peace for a parent in the midst of great tragedy. Each parent was changed by this experience, holding their children closer to them, seeing each moment of their one wild and precious life worth those moments. Each student was changed by this experience, perhaps to call a future cab, to make a wiser choice before alcohol sets in and makes the choice for them. We were each asked what it is we plan to do with our one wild and precious life. This is a question burned into our hearts and minds and I pray it lives strong.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” -Mary Oliver