Scared Straight or Scared Stiff: Do Alcohol Awareness Programs Sometimes Go Too Far?

Students and teachers at high school divided over benefits of staged deaths

June 6, 2008— -- 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.

"The research that I've read shows that scare tactics don't work because fear tends to paralyze the intended audience, keep them upset about something that happened in the past and keep them scared about something that will happen in the future. They can't focus on the present. … Sometimes fear appeals cause stress, and they increase the usage of what they're trying to change."

The founder of the program can't say whether it has been proved to change behavior and not just attitudes.

Dean Wilson, a police officer in Bethlehem, Pa., started the program in 1995 and has introduced it to hundreds of high schools and thousands of students.

"It's difficult to measure proactive approaches like this," he says.

"We can tell you that there have been no crashes immediately as a result. But long term, it's difficult to measure. If we can change attitude, then it can change behavior. We last did a survey in 1999 that showed students said they would reduce their daily or weekly drink episodes and were less likely to drive when drinking."

Wilson, who was surprised to hear that students at El Camino High were led to believe for at least two hours that their classmates had died, insisted that he had not sent materials to that school.

"That's not what we teach. There is always a common-sense approach. Maybe the Grim Reaper walks into a classroom and takes away a student."

Lori Tauber, a counselor at El Camino High, explained that she followed the program's materials. "I'm a literal person, and I did everything by the book."

She admits that the program was a little controversial and that some kids were traumatized but said that most students understood the program's importance.

"Next time, we'll probably do it differently, be more sensitive," she said. "More communication, get teachers more involved."

Shock Treatment

But many parents seemed to support the program. Bennett's mother, Lena, explains that she was initially worried that it went overboard.

"But after seeing the reaction and looking at all the things that can happen, I think the kids needed that shock," she says. "But it was rough. One of my daughter's friends who's known her since kindergarten called over here and I started crying even though I knew what was going on."

Kathy Magrino, whose son went through a similar program at Davis High School in California, recommended it to other schools.

"I have never had my son discuss an assembly or an event like that one. It really affected him and I am fully confident that he has never had a drink and driven. It was very successful. We did not have one parent with negative feedback."

Jill Mason, who was severely injured by a drunken driver in 2004, has participated in the program at more than 30 high schools, where she describes her experience. She says she has never heard of a school replicating the El Camino High program, where the students were led to believe for several hours that students had actually died.

"Usually, they are very shocked," she explains. "It's amazing. I remember being that age and not much can affect you. But I can tell that my story is getting inside of them. It's very powerful."