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It takes a community to keep kids safe
Students and staff at Mountain Valley High School rode an emotional roller coaster during the school’s two-day event – Every 15 Minutes.
For most, the ride started with a student pulled out of class by the Grim Reaper and Rumford Police Sergeant Tracey Higley reading the student’s obituary. The ride passed through a scene of carnage – a mock head-on collusion caused by a drunk driver. The simulated accident scene included a student rushed to the
Rumford Hospital with severe injuries and a student zipped into a body bag and removed in a hearse.
The next day, the ride continued with the students reappearing as the “Living Dead.” They escorted a casket into the auditorium. They read letters that began
“Dear Mom and Dad, every fifteen minutes someone is killed or seriously injured in an alcohol-related traffic incident. Today I died...”
Higley admitted being emotionally drained after the two-day event, but that was in a good way. He said when he does a project, he sets high standards for himself. However, this program "completely exceeded my expectations. I cried more than once."
Often when there is an event, Higley said there are always people responding negatively afterwards. That was not the case this time. "I haven't heard anyone who has had a negative thing to say."
A great idea and an unwillingness to accept no
Prior to those two days, thousands of hours of planning and coordination were required. Many community resources were tapped. Countless individuals and businesses donated time and talent.
It began with a conversation in the spring of 2011. MVHS Math Teacher Lisa Russell heard about the program from her sister, Tira Cottrell, who experienced it at her daughter’s high school in Washington state. Listening to the impact that it had on her sister, niece, their school and community, Russell thought it sounded like something that MVHS students could benefit from.
“During the Keeping Kids Safe program last spring, I talked to Matt Gilbert and Officer Higley,” Russell recalls
Higley started to explore the idea by looking at the every15minutes.com website. “I got enthusiastic about it and asked my Chief over the summer if we could do it. At first, he said not this year.”
Next Higley engaged the help of Principal Matt Gilbert. “Matt and I both asked the chief again in the fall and he couldn’t refuse.”
The next step was to get buy-in from the Rumford Board of Selectmen and the RSU 10 Board of Directors. It was a tough sell.
Gilbert recalls, “The scope of the program intimidated people. Many were concerned about supporting kids through the trauma of seeing a mock fatality and losing classmates to the Grim Reaper.”
Higley said that nine months ago, he began the planning stages, then four months later, a core group of eight to 10 people began working on the project.
Months of planning and collaboration
After the necessary permissions, a planning committee formed. The committee grew in size as time went on and eventually included more than 30 individuals.
“If people expressed a concern, we invited them to join us,” explained Gilbert. “As part of the planning committee, they got their concerns addressed and we ended up with a stronger program.”
At first, the group met every other week for an hour.
Gilbert recalls, “At first, people thought there was a lot of time. In March, they got serious that this was going to happen and started asking for more frequent and longer meetings.”
For some parts of the committee, in-depth planning is a normal way of doing their job. For others, it was truly amazing.
Russell explained, “We gave people things to do and it came together like joining pieces together in a large puzzle.”
Higley remembered an integral part of the planning process – selecting the students for the Living Dead. “We started with 92 names of students and we took the time to identify all aspects of our community. We looked at athletic schedules, AP testing, Top 10 Banquet, recent family tragedy and cut down the list to 51.
We mailed letters explaining the program to parents of those students. We received approximately 32 replies. Of those 30 something, 28 parents attended an information and training meeting. After receiving permission from the parents, we identified four kids for the crash scene and 18 kids to be the Living Dead. To keep an element of surprise, some kids and parents were in the pool but not used during the program. They were prepared but didn’t get a death notification.”
Then the day before the program, meteorologists predicted rain. How could the entire student body view the mock crash without being soaked. Last minute planning by Head Custodian Jim Drapeau and Custodian Jim Gamache prevented a wash out. They used wood and tarps to cover bleachers. After the morning’s bus runs, they strategically parked buses for kids to sit in.
“We thought Mother Nature had thrown a curve ball,” Gilbert said. “But the custodians saved the day.”
Community supports program with time, talent and financial resources
By early winter, Rumford Police Chief Stacy Carter became an advocate for the program. As a member of the River Valley Healthy Communities Collation, Carter and Patty Duguay were instrumental in securing a sizable monetary donation.
“That donation, along with many others, enabled us to do the program really well,” Higley recalled.
Gilbert added, “Thanks to the incredible generosity of many community groups, businesses and individuals, the school had only one minor expense – the cost of an additional custodian for one day. With a tight school budget we couldn’t do it alone, I am amazed by how the community supported this learning event for our kids. When I say community, I don’t mean just Rumford but the greater River Valley.”
Higley and Gilbert outlined examples of the community support. Rumford Hospital donated a room for the examination of the mock accident victim and for the notification of her parents about the extent of her injuries. Dr. Larry Hopperstead and other members of the hospital staff treated the patient and her family.
Since the hospital regularly performs emergency drills, they provided timeline planning sheets, name tags for all adult volunteers, and two-way radios for communication and coordination. The “injured” student, who was paralyzed, was wheeled into the auditorium the next day in a hospital wheelchair.
Police officers donated their time for planning and the event. They notified parents of the “deceased” students as well as performed their regular duties during the mock crash. Rumor has it the Grim Reaper was two different police officers in disguise.
Med-Care Ambulance personnel responded to the crash scene and took care of the mock victims. Behind the scene, specially trained ambulance personnel applied moulage makeup to the accident victims and to the Living Dead to make the scene more realistic. Oxford County Emergency Management Agency provided the supplies. Natalie Simmons, MVHS English and Theater Arts teacher, applied facial makeup to the Living Dead.
The Rumford Fire Department worked on the planning. The Mexico Fire Department joined them at the mock accident scene.
“I can’t believe it but more than 2,500 pictures were taken in the two days,” Higley said. In addition to student photographers and videographers, Photos by Greg Viger, Bree Mason Phtography, and As I See It Photography by Virginia Mawhinney donated their talent.
Higley was impressed by the production crew of Gage David, Katie Collette, Elizabeth Adley, Nick Billings, Sydney Yahn, Casey Child, Chris Bourret, Dalton Milledge and Tucker Rowland and the fact that even though they were from all grade levels, they worked together seemlessly towards one goal.
And producing that video was teacher Jeff Bailey, whom Higley said worked on the video, on his own time, until 1:30 into the morning.
On his Facebook page, Bailey noted, "For those of you who were wondering why I've been so busy this week, or for those of you who know about the Every 15 Minutes program that took place that the high school (a drunk and distracted driving simulation), here is the final result. This is the video that my video production students made with help from Michael M. Prescott's audio engineering students and Greg Viger's photographs from the day. Too many people were involved for me to mention them here but thanks to Lisa Russell, Matt Gilbert and Debbie Buotte for their incredible efforts. In the 13 years I've been at MVHS, there has not been an educational event that has had more of an impact on our students."
This video, which Higley said will be shown over Every 15 Minutes national website, can be seen now over You Tube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzDrFTWLcCY, or on Mountain Valley High School’s facebook page.
Higley is in hopes that this video will also be shown over the local access channel, which also taped this event.
Gilbert explained, “Even simple things like two cars for the crash scene required more than I thought. Dixfield Salvage donated the cars and Adley’s Auto Sales and Service put tires on them to make the scene realistic. They also provided the wrecker service to haul the cars to school and haul them away.”
“I am so glad that we had so many counselors,” Gilbert said. “For something so fake -- a mock accident, the emotions got so real. While the school faculty helped immensely with watching out for kids, we relied on the professional counselors and clergy."
In addition to school counselors, staff from Common Ground Counseling provided support. Clergy from Mexico Congregational Church, Rumford United Methodist Church, Parish of the Holy Savior and Praise Assembly of God offered counseling and faith-based support.
Local businesses donated food to keep hungry teenagers happy. The food was set up in the command post where the Living Dead were held for the day. It was also used for student and parent retreats.
Meader and Son Funeral Home and S.G. Thibault Funeral Home took part in the planning and provided a realistic look at dealing with death. Gilbert recalled, “Many students told me the event became ‘real’ for them when they saw the casket on the stage in the auditorium.”
“The newspaper doesn’t have enough ink to print all the names of all the businesses and individuals who helped. That does not diminish their contribution or our gratefulness for their support,” Gilbert concluded.
Not just a school-day event
After the Grim Reaper chose the Living Dead, those students were held in the command post for the remainder of the day and did not go home at the end of the school day. They were sequestered at the Comfort Inn and Suites in Wilton and participated in an afternoon and evening program to help them prepare for the next day and for life choices in the future.
Russell explained, “The students participated in trust games, activities based around making good choices and the consequences of making bad choices. Jan Bordeau and Michele Cushman contributed to the evening’s events.”
“For some students, losing their electronic devices was difficult,” Russell said. “They were not allowed to contact family or friends. Cell phones, laptops and other social media connections were prohibited.”
After the assembly on day two, the students were finally reunited with their families. Again counselors were on hand to support this emotional reunion.
In the end, it will take months and years to know the impact of Every 15 Minutes on the students, their families and the community.
Higley said he doesn't know how much of an impact this experience made on the students, but is pretty sure the students selected by the Grim Reaper were affected as well as their parents.
"I can't wait to see where those fingers (from this event) reach out to," he noted.
Higley said there has already been six to eight requests for the video, including other schools.
Of course, with something so impactful, the question will arise, "When are you going to do this again?"
Higley hesitated on a response, but suggested maybe in another three years that he would be willing to lead or be a part of this program again, adding that perhaps the other RSU 10 high schools would be participating as well.
“From the onset my goal was to make as much of an impact on as many people as possible. Thanks to the efforts of the Every 15 Minutes committee and our community I truly believe that we succeeded in sky high expectations,” reflected Higley.
Gilbert added, “We are truly blessed to have the community support to pull off this event and make that kind of an impact on students and their decisions.”