It was a typical first period class on a Monday morning at El Camino High School in the beach town of Oceanside, Calif., when the students got the shock of their lives.
A uniformed police officer walked into several classrooms and somberly announced that fellow students had been killed in a drunken driving accident. After reading a brief eulogy, the officer placed a rose on the deceased student's seat and left the room.
The reaction was immediate: Some students broke into tears, others gasped in silent despair and a few became nearly hysterical.
After two hours of coping with their grief, the stunned juniors and seniors were led into an athletic stadium to witness the gruesome scene as the "dead" students, streaked in blood, were pulled out of the wrecked car by local police and firefighters.
That's when they were finally told that it was all part of a ruse designed to educate them about the dangers of drinking and driving. It was an extreme version of "Every 15 Minutes," a program popular in high schools around the country (the title of which refers to how often an alcohol-related traffic fatality occurs in the United States).
But some traumatized students and teachers, including a popular English instructor, were still reeling, upset and angry at the deception.
"It was outrageous," says one parent who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation. "My daughter came home a wreck -- she didn't get over it for days. She was more freaked out than educated about drunk driving."
The school was divided over the program in the first few days.
"Some [of those] who were upset felt that they'd been duped … some were so caught up in feeling they were tricked that they didn't get the message," says Brittany Bennett, the editor of the school paper, who played one of the dead students.
"It was about half and half. I was nervous about going to school the next day -- I heard that people were angry."
But Bennett says that most students, including friends of hers who sent her frantic text messages when they heard about the "accident," got the message and said that it would stop them from drinking and driving.
"You need something this graphic to wake up to the fact that it's real, that this happens all the time."
How Effective Are Such Programs?
But despite the popularity of the program, some researchers question the long-term effectiveness of such scare tactics.
"There is not much evidence that these programs have much impact on drinking and driving," says Richard A. Yoast, the director of the American Medical Association's Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse. "They create awareness but there is not much evidence that they change behaviors."
"Education is necessary to change people's behavior, but it's rarely sufficient to do that. What works is public education, strong laws, law enforcement and people knowing about the enforcement. That combination has reduced drunken driving fatalities."
In some cases, the fear engendered by such programs may even have the opposite impact, says Jennifer Bauerle, the director of the National Social Norms Institute at the University of Virginia.