Many high schools are experimenting with these questions.
One such “scared sober” experiment was conducted at El Camino High School in the beach town of Oceanside, CA. One morning, students at El Camino High School were suddenly told by police and school officials that several of their classmates had just died in a drunk driving accident. The students were allowed to grieve and share their grief with their classmates for two hours. They were then taken to the auditorium where officials played a video which they claimed was an actual video of the accident aftermath. After watching the video, the stunned students and teachers were told that the entire accident was a hoax. The mock scenario was staged as part of the program entitled, “Every 15 Minutes.”
“Every 15 Minutes” is a widely accepted method of exposing high school students across the nation to the real life loss, grieving and ultimate consequences of drunk driving. The web site for the program states:
“Every 15 Minutes offers real-life experiences without the real-life risks. This emotionally charged program is an event designed to dramatically instill teenagers with the potentially dangerous consequences of drinking alcohol. This powerful program will challenge students to think about drinking, personal safety, and the responsibility of making mature decisions when lives are involved.”
This sounds like a great program. I looked at the lesson plan on their web site. This plan is more in the nature of guided education. The program outlines very specific steps that are to be taken in the notification and disclosure process to ensure no one goes off the emotional deep end. It bears little resemblance to the “shock and awe” tactics used by the El Camino School District. There is no doubt that what El Camino High School did was emotionally charged and dramatic, but at what cost? California certainly leads the nation in putting a liberal spin on issues. Where do we draw the line between liberal and “reckless cruelty”? Did they review the medical histories of these kids to ensure none of them would suffer medical or psychological problems as a result of this trauma? If this had happened in Texas, the plaintiff’s bar would be circling like vultures to sue the school district on behalf of the traumatized students.
There are certainly some compelling arguments and statistics for the use of such scare tactics. The stats on teen drunk driving are enough alone to scare you . According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration(NTSA) almost 28 percent of teens 15-20 killed in accidents in 2005 had a been drinking. Teen drivers are responsible for twelve percent of all road-related deaths, yet only consist of less than ten percent of the population as a whole according to the Insurance Institute for Health and Safety.
When you process the above statistics, little doubt is left that programs like Every 15 Minutes may be a good thing overall. You would think they certainly can not hurt anything. How long they deter teen drinking or lifetime drunk driving is unknown. There are no solid stats. Is it a safe assumption that none of the El Camino teens drove drunk the day/night they were traumatized? Should we all applaud that goal achieved?
What about the mutated version used by the El Camino School District? Sobriety at any cost? The kids are traumatized. Do the majority leave campus talking about how they were traumatized? Are they now more aware of the problem though the alcohol awareness education? Are they more skeptical and angry as a result of the deception? Is that what they will remember a week from now, a year from now, ten years from now. In the short term, some of them may turn to alcohol just to deal with the stress of the hoax.
I have a uniquely personal viewpoint since I am a current member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). I have listened to hundreds of tragic stories relating to drinking. Many of these stories relate to drunken driving accidents and arrests. Some of these stories are from teenagers. Everyone in AA has been “scared” into the program for one reason or another. In all the terrible stories I have heard, not once has someone said they were attending AA because someone else’s tragedy caused them to question their own choices. What does that tell you? It tells me that alcohol awareness education is not a “scared straight” issue or even an “Every Fifteen Minutes” issue. For it to be effective, alcohol awareness education must focus on the long term.
In order to get an insider opinion as to the effectiveness of such “scared straight” type programs, I contacted Paul Nagy, director of the Duke Addictions Program at the Department of Psychiatry in the Duke University Medical Center. He had this to say:
I am familiar with similar approaches to “scaring kids straight.” My comments are as follows;
1) Unless a clinical study is conducted to evaluate this program’s efficacy, it would not be accurate to call the program “effective” even if there are anecdotes to suggest it is so. Without such scientific studies, interventions are not considered “evidenced based” by State and Federal Agencies such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse(NIDA) and the Subtance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency (SAMHSA).
2) I am familiar with research that uses similar approaches (e.g. DARE) which shows consistent evidence that scare tactics such as those used in the 15 Minutes program have little sustained effectiveness.
3) There is some science informed perspectives that suggest that these approaches actually have unintended detrimental effects. For example, Nora Volkow the Director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, talks publicly about how adolescents are “hard wired” to be risk takers and has suggested that these kinds of scare approaches actually entice some kids to test the veracity of the information.
4) My own perspective is that if kids react at all, the effect is fairly short lived. My experience is also that many adolescents will see this and express an omnipotent “it can’t happen to me” attitude in response.
5) I might also worry that this approach has the potential to activate a post traumatic response in some cases. This type of intervention could result in chemical changes in the brain that establishes a very powerful emotional memory which could prove potentially damaging. For example vulnerable kids can show a regressive pattern of behavior in response to strong emotional stimuli. Further, as a parent of a teen, I would likely raise an objection to the school if my kid were exposed to this kind of experience without his or our informed consent.
Winthrop W. Gilman, chairman of The Mychal Institute, had this to say:
“My immediate reaction as someone who has studied the use and abuse of alcohol for more than sixty years is this. Adolescents are very impressionistic. They will immediately recognize that if hoax is needed to make a drastic impression, it can not be of any real importance. The shock and scare tactics used by these programs are more associative with the adrenaline rush at Halloween time in a haunted house environment. If the experience is not real, it is of no real value. When smokers are exposed to the diseased lung tissue of a deceased smoker, they are regularly seen lighting up a cigarette as they leave the autopsy room.”
So there you have it. While programs such as Every 15 Minutes have the right intent, do they achieve anything in the long term? Do they risk doing more harm than good to the child? Is anyone even using sample groups to monitor children throughout their lives to see who lives, who dies, who becomes and alcoholic, etc. If this is not done, all we will ever be able to do is say is that it sounds good for the papers and parents. All else will be pure speculation
What do you think?
BLOG UPDATE(6-12-08): You can read today’s CNN article in which the School District defends itself here.