The casket made its way down through the center aisle at Mattson Gym while the bagpipes played their mournful tune. Although it was a scene orchestrated to make a point, students at San Benito High School were still met with a harsh reality on Thursday, March 23.
The dramatic “Every 15 Minutes” performance comes at a time when high school graduation is just around the corner. Unfortunately, when celebrations are planned, drinking and driving becomes a necessary topic at home. It is still the leading cause of death for teenagers. That is why every other year, a dedicated team of school personnel, community members and law enforcement focuses on students making mature decisions about alcohol and being mindful of the families and friends that care about them.
This year, senior Isabella Cutillo was offered a role in the drama and she agreed to a part, thinking it might be fun. “I went into it thinking it was kind of cool and I maybe could get out of class for it,” she admitted after the performance. Cutillo played the role of a student killed in an auto accident. Ultimately, she said, “It made me think about who I affect.”
So, this week student actors carried the symbolic casket into the huge gym, and then laid roses upon it while nearly 2,000 students watched quietly. Acting out their parts with sincerity, students and parents spoke about their loss. It may have been carefully planned out, but the risk is real.
In this somber setting, Louise Roy, a retired San Benito High School teacher, bravely told a deeply personal story about the call she received at 2 in the morning. “’You need to come to the hospital right away’, they told me,” Roy said. “When I walked in, all I saw was his friends and they were all crying.”
Roy has shared the experience of losing her son, Brian, for the Every 15 Minutes program many times. She repeated for the crowd the many assurances parents have all told themselves; that they’ve offered to pick their teen up, that they are smart kids, that if they drink, they won’t drive. Roy said the fallacy is that once they’ve had something to drink, the judgment you rely on as a parent is gone. “If just one of you thinks of me and stops and makes a better choice, it will be worth it,” the retired art teacher said.
San Benito High School Principal Adrian Ramirez was sitting in Mrs. Roy’s class as a freshman the day her son's death was announced. “Yes, I remember it,” Ramirez said. “The counselor came in and told us.” Giving Roy a hug after the program, Ramirez expressed his hope that it will make a difference. He pointed out that there have been times San Benito County has experienced a “string of tragic deaths.” Ramirez added, “What is terrible is how many people are affected. There’s the first responders, the teachers, the friends. The affect ripples out much more than mom and dad.”
Nick Cutillo, Isabella’s father, agreed to take part in the program in which he and his wife had the role of parents whose child dies in the accident. Cutillo told BenitoLink that although he was always aware Every 15 Minutes was a just a program, “It was really hard, harder than you would think.”
His wife, Melinda, said, “I’ve had dread over the last couple weeks. It is so gut-wrenching.”
First, the sheriff arrived at their home to inform them of Isabella's death, and then Nick had to go to the coroner’s office to identify her. When he arrived in the cold, dark office, they opened the drawer to reveal Isabella lying in a body bag. It was so chilling, Nick Cutillo couldn’t avoid a reaction. He also said that he hadn’t realized a situation like the one in the program would be treated as a crime. “I wasn’t allowed to touch her and it was all very procedural,” he said.
Speaking with his wife and daughter, Nick Cutillo told BenitoLink, “The program impacted us all on different levels. It really reminds us how important it is to relate with your child.” He said the program made the family “examine alcohol use and the choices we make when it comes to driving.”
“When someone says, ‘Just call me and I’ll come get you,’” Isabella said, “you think you’ve handled it. But you don’t really know how you’ll react.” She said the experience was “very sobering for someone in the situation.” Isabella said in a circumstance like that in the story, she knows she would call now.
Every 15 Minutes involves parents, first-responders, students and the commitment of the school. The organizers get started about eight months out and select a group of students to take on parts in the drama. Parents are contacted four weeks prior to the event and informed that their teen has been invited to take a role in the performance. Finally, about 18 students take part in the realistic drama and their classmates learn about it just two days before the “funeral."
Virginia Jones has been organizing this event for almost 22 years. “The way I measure our impact is the emotions and the facial expressions on the kids involved,” she said. As supervisor for American Medical Response, the emergency medical technician said, ”We realize we are not going to change the mind of everyone but if we can save one life, the months of preparation is worth it.”
It is likely that Every 15 Minutes will be scheduled again in two years. The good news is that as a nation, we have made some progress with the drinking and driving problem. Today, this terrible community tragedy happens every 36 minutes instead of every 15.