'Walking dead' discourage DUIs

Posted: Friday, May 21, 2010

The Grim Reaper came for Juneau-Douglas High School senior Caitlyn Trani in her American Government class on Wednesday. He was dressed in a black cloak, hood and a skull-mask, and carrying a scythe. The tall, dark figure kept a bony, long-fingered hand on Trani's shoulder all the way down the hall. Before that, he came for senior Jordan Reese.

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Behind the Grim Reaper's mask was police officer Ken Colon, who was participating in a day-long event at JDHS on Thursday, "Every 15 minutes," meant to discourage drunk driving. Every 15 minutes for the first half of the school day, the Grim Reaper came to another class and took another student. The student's obituary was read as he or she walked out of class. Later, the students were covered with white make-up and were the "walking dead" for the rest of the day.

Later that afternoon, the Grim Reaper circled a mock crash scene in the JDHS parking lot. In the scenario, junior Shanae'a Moore had been thrown through the windshield and was lying, covered in blood, on the hood of the car. Passenger Aaron Cohen died at the hospital. Mariel Enriquez, in the back of the car, was alive but couldn't move her legs. The driver of the other vehicle, Gabrielle Larson, also survived.

The person playing the drunken driver responsible for the crash, Nicholas Banaszak, lived but was arrested by police and given sobriety tests, which he "failed."

Paramedics from Capital City Fire and Rescue pried open Banaszak's car with the jaws of life, and after someone from Alaska Memorial Park & Mortuary and a paramedic carried Moore off in a body bag, the students in the audience - juniors and seniors from JDHS, Thunder Mountain High School and Yaakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School - filed into the auditorium, where they watched a video of what happened after the ambulance left.

Cohen's father collapsed on his son's chest as he was pronounced dead. Enriquez was medevaced to Seattle. A police officer visited Moore's home to inform her parents she had passed away. But it wasn't over yet.

Students watched a funeral complete with a eulogy given by Cohen's mother, Barb Sheinberg, coffins and flowers for the two students who had died in the class, bagpipes playing "Amazing Grace," and Natasha "Tifa" Fenumiai, a member of the walking dead, reading a posthumous letter to her mother.

And then Carol White, mother of Taylor White, who died days after graduating from JDHS last June in a drunk driving accident, got up to speak.

"The idea is that this could happen to you," she said. "My preference would have been for Taylor not to drink ... but if you are going to make that choice, at least plan ahead to safeguard yourself."

White said she heard from her son's friends that her son and his buddies had driven after drinking "dozens of times" with no consequences prior to his accident.

"Because they were successful ... they really thought they could get away with it," she said. "And actually, lots of them did. But Taylor didn't. Tyler (Emerson, the driver of the car) didn't. (The 17-year-old passenger) didn't. And I wonder, was that car ride, listening to that music, so great that it was worth not being here? Was it worth the pain that his friends have gone through, and that his family has gone through? I bet he would say, 'No.'"

All told, about 18 students participated in the event, said JPD Officer Jason Van Sickle.

Trani said she decided to participate because Taylor White was a family friend. Reese said he decided to participate because he has "little tolerance for people that drink and drive."

"I decided instead of getting angry, I should help inform," he said.

JDHS senior and audience member Kaye Roldan said the event changed her perspective.

"At first, people thought it was stupid. People thought it was ... a waste of time," she said of the day. "But in there, when you're actually experiencing it, ... it really gets to you. Seeing the procedure and seeing how they took them out (of the car) and the reactions of the families ... I started to cry. It actually affects you and how you perceive drunk driving."

Van Sickle said the department has been talking about doing the event for the last three years, and has been planning it since last September.

JDHS Assistant Principal Paula Casperson said the school might host the event again. The event likely won't happen every year because of the large community effort required to put it on.

The event was started by the Chico Police Department in the 1990s, when there was a death in an alcohol-related crash every 15 minutes. That statistic is now every 30 minutes.

This is the first time it has been held in the Juneau School District.

• Contact reporter Mary Catharine Martin at 523-2276 or maryc.martin@juneauempire.com.

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