Missed Opportunity

Heather Bryant / Editor-in -Chief
Sep. 27, 2011

Framed photos, a baseball glove and bat lay on a table in front of the musicians. A printed program displayed Emilie Valentine’s photo, and underneath that photo the words “May 21, 1992 – September 21, 2011.”

Quiet music played as the wreath was laid. The simple wood coffin stood under a tent that protected it from the cold drizzle in Constitution Park. People took turns at the podium speaking about the deceased. They talked about how unfortunate it was to lose someone so young and innocent. The drunk driver who killed her even spoke. About a dozen students observed the proceedings. Some watched quietly. Some cried.

After the funeral, men picked up the empty coffin and put it into a van to be taken away. Then, the deceased walked over to her family and handed them framed photos of herself.

Valentine, a resident assistant, volunteered as the victim for a drunk driving awareness campaign put on by the University of Alaska Fire and Police departments. Fire Marshall Len DeJoria had been asked to do a vehicle extraction during the week before Starvation Gulch.

“I said let’s do one better,” said DeJoria. “Let’s go big or go home. Every time [the planning committee] met, we came up with bigger and better things. We almost had a helicopter.”

On Sept. 21 and 22, the macabre demonstration played out in front of the library and bookstore as students walked by on their way to classes.

Despite an email sent out beforehand, many students didn’t realize the event was a simulation. At the “funeral,” there were students who thought volunteer victim Valentine actually died.

Counselors were on hand in case any observer became upset by the event, DeJoria said.

“If we changed one person then it was worth the whole damn thing,” Valentine said after the event. Valentine had to stay off campus for the day after her “death,” with only her coworkers, father and best friend knowing the truth.

The UAF demonstration is a modified version of the Every 15 Minutes program. The program, designed for high schools, also simulates a fatal car accident. However, the high school program also follows the car crash and funeral with speakers, including convicted drunk drivers and law enforcement. Unlike the UAF demonstration, the high school event is a part of the school day, ensuring a captive audience. UAF’s event depended on students stopping to observe.

I see the value in awareness events such as these. People have visceral reactions to car crashes, ambulances and funerals. However, this shock-and-awe campaign focused on production value rather than substance. It lacked a crucial element: direction.

Creating a call to action for students necessitates providing a way to act. In this case, organizers asked students no to drive drunk – but they neglected to provide an alternative.

There were no resources available to students on either day of the campaign: No information about recognizing when someone has had too much to drink. No numbers for students to call if they needed help. No mention of counseling services available for students who have problems with alcohol. Nothing.

Why not put out pamphlets about the Counseling Center? Organizers went through the effort of printing up full-color funeral programs on cardstock. What about giving out wallet-sized cards with the phone numbers of taxi services, so students would have an alternative to drinking and driving? This was a great opportunity to put resources into the hands of students and it was missed.

I appreciate the work of the fire and police departments to raise awareness. Drunk driving threatens everyone. But with more than 1,000 college students killed each year in drunk driving accidents, we don’t need to fake something that really happens. Tell the real stories of the students lost because of drunk driving. And when we do, give students the tools to help them stay safe.

If you are related to someone or in a relationship with someone who has drinking problems, there are resources available to you. If you paid the Health Center fee, six free counseling sessions are available to you at the UAF Center for Health and Counseling. Or go to www.al-anon.alateen.org for more information about how you can get the support you need.

If you suspect you may have a drinking problem, use your free counseling sessions and get help. You can also call 1-800-662-HELP.

Heather Bryant

The Sun Star

(907) 474-5078

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