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June 17, 2008

Cops and parents hoax drunk driving deaths to scare teens

Last month, police officers visited 20 classrooms at El Camino High School to inform teens that several of their classmates had been killed in drunk driving crashes over the weekend. Not surprisingly, the students were devastated by the news.

Several hours later, the adults revealed that it was all a hoax: Nobody died. There was no accident. Trusted authority figures cooked up the whole story to teach the kids a lesson. A guidance counselor literally told the AP reporter that the object of the exercise was to traumatize the kids so that they'd get the message.

Unfortunately, the lesson these unfortunate California high schoolers learned is that adults have to lie to convince them that drinking and driving is dangerous. So, this cruel stunt precisely backfired. The take home message became: Don't trust adults who warn you about drinking and driving.

Great public health outreach, folks.

[HT: Ellen of The D'Alliance]


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I was horrified when I heard about this. Those responsible should be disciplined, and possibly removed from their positions.

I can't imagine the reaction that this type of "news" could have on certain students. Unforgivable.

What a great tactic! I see nothing wrong with this ploy. Kids today are so f'n pampered and coddled. They need a good kick in the ass to let them know what the stark realities of D&D are. But as usual, our liberal friends will tell us we hurt their feelings, and now they can't trust adults. Such B.S.

I see the effects of drunk driving everyday. Lest ye be a victim, you should not speak on this. Look a mother or wife in the eyes that has lost a son or husband, or a parent of 16 yo whose teen was killed by a drunk friend, then tell me this went to far.

B Money

On the wrong day, you could have an emotionally fragile student take his/her own life out of despair, or jump in their car while emotional and get into an accident themselves

Think that's impossible? Do you really?

Like LB, I would never trust any teacher/cop who was part of this dishonest trick, nor of any institution that was connected to it.

I agree that waiting several hours was a mistake. The suicide scenario you pose is quite possible with today's f'd up kids.

But I have no problem with the hoax. They should have told them, let them freak out in class or wherever they told them, let it sink in, then told them a grief counselor would come in, and then wait a few minutes, THEN tell them it was a hoax. Point made, no one hurt. Kids today are wimps and are so over protected. For good reason in some instances. But drunk driving is an area where I feel the gloves need to come off and they need to be beat upside the head til they get the point.

As for the trust of teachers and cops, these little shits have no respect for cops and teachers as it is, so what's the difference?

--As for the trust of teachers and cops, these little shits have no respect for cops and teachers as it is, so what's the difference?--

Not all kids are like that- not by a long shot.

Tactics like this will turn the good kids into cynical world-weary little assholes like the rest of them.

Very very bad move.

And a really big percentage of drunk drivers would be adults ---probably most males -- over the age of 21.

A friend of mine used to drunk up to 8 quarts of Budweiser, while driving on the streets of NYC, just for the hell of it. Until he had a little wake up call which shook him up a little bit...a collision with a tree that did the car and his driving record no good at all.

Should we use such "scared straight" tactics in the colleges...on military bases? There's no end to the fun here.

Well, we disagree then. Hey, BTW, where did you get your child psych degree from Phantom?? ;) Oh cheap shot! J/K

You are right that not ALL teens are like that. But by scaring these kids maybe they will learn a lesson. Why must we always worry about them losing trust in the cops and teachers? Most people distrust cops these days as it is. But these are well to do kids who have no reason to distrust teachers or cops and one incident designed to teach them a lesson should not shatter their fragile little sensibilities. Kids this age used to die in war. No we can't even teach them a lesson. Sad, sad, sad...


Qu'est-ce c'est?

They are just trying to do their best to help prevent a tragic loss. I highly doubt that their motives were anything less than sincere. Okay, so maybe it had some ill-effects. However, I think the real sad thing is that this is how far people feel they need to go to convince high schoolers that drinking and driving is a terrible thing. It is unfortunate that America's youth are so caught up with being cool and fitting in that they can't think for themselves and realize how terrible drunk driving is. Its a shame that our culture allows this degradation of critical thought in exchange for popularity.

B-money makes a good point that not all kids need a smack upside the head. However, it only takes one jerk to ruin someones life, and unfortunately this may be the most effective way to reach them. That some of the good kids are unnecessarily hurt is just a fact of life. Like a sports team that runs sprints when one of its players mouths off to the coach, so should the good young kids be willing to suffer slightly for the betterment of society. Afterall, we are all on the same team trying to improve humanity, right?

I could think of a lot of ways to make an deep impression on this issue and none of them involve telling a kid that his friend just died.

Sorry man, I don't speak frenchy!

What does J/K mean?

Oh...I was "just kidding" about the degree thing. I text message a lot now and I am incorporating the lingo into my emails and what not.

What a great way to teach an important lesson!

Maybe some of the students could return the favor by accusing several teachers of getting them drunk and molesting them. The teachers would be terrified of losing their jobs and going to jail. Later, the students could reveal that it was all a hoax intended to teach them the importance of honesty. That'd be cool, right?

This is just appalling. You have an age group that tends to have issues with authority, so you lie, make fools out of them and generally trifle with their deepest feelings in order to get your message across. And you really believe the aftertaste of this experience will have anything to do with the issue of drunk driving?

And I hope these parents don't have any real tragedies to break the news of with their kids the next few years; that could turn out a little awkward.

What a great way to teach an important lesson!

That lesson being that people don't really die in drunk driving accidents?

"That lesson being that people don't really die in drunk driving accidents?"

Yeah, that too!

Yes, deaths caused by impaired driving are a horrific, grotesque loss, but no thinking person could believe this hoax to be defensible.

Carpet-bombing a school with traumatic lies is an ineffective way of discouraging kids from drinking and driving.

Being led to believe that people you care about are dead IS traumatic. That trauma, after all, is what the authorities were counting on to replace reasoned conversation. This hoax was DESIGNED to "shatter their fragile little sensibilities."

Most kids do not drink and drive. They understand that the risks outweigh the benefits. Kids who dont understand this might not be amenable to reason, but neither will they be persuaded by fear. When you terrify a teenager with lies, you also humiliate them, and teenagers don't have a great track-record for handling these emotions rationally. They usually react stupidly, in defiance.

So now we've got a student populace who've been energized by fear. Most of them were well-behaved before, and remain harmless and have only had to pay the price of a (hopefully) minor trauma, and some loss of trust in authority. Others, who were already cynical, have had their cynicism reinforced. [Unfortunately there IS a difference between bad and worse.] A few impressionable do-gooders will be galvanized into Anti-drunk driving crusaders. But they are unlikely to go to the same parties or have any effect on the students we really need to worry about. Either the numbed, who were probably totally unaffected by this stunt, or the jackasses who, next time they're loaded at a party, will hop in their car and ridicule anyone who asks "didn't you learn anything at School that day."

Unfortunately my years in the California school system taught me not to expect much from guidance counselors. But in any sane system, this would violate several professional codes of conduct.

From the article:
"They were traumatized, but we wanted them to be traumatized," said guidance counselor Lori Tauber, who helped organize the shocking exercise and got dozens of students to participate. "That's how they get the message."

They really are just sort of winging it, aren't they? No training whatsoever. Just hire someone to coach a sport and give them an Easy Money job as a guidance counselor.

When I was in high school, the local funeral director gave us a powerful "don't drink and drive" lecture. He stuck to facts he'd learned first-hand and he was completely respectful towards his audience. He talked about what it was like to prepare the bodies of dead who killed by drinking drivers. This guy wasn't there to shame us or embarrass us. The talk could have been a guilt trip or a scare tactic, but that's not how he came across. Everyone could tell that he was there to ask for our help in solving a problem that none of us could afford to ignore. By the time he was done, even the self-styled tough kids were visibly moved. He gives the lecture to a lot of high school students. I bet he's saved lives over the years.


I am opposed to this hoax and similar approaches to 'shock education' that attempt behavioral change in our school children.

Let's look at this as a social science experiment. The hypothesis might be that communication about drunk driving that personalizes, shocks, and traumatizes students is effective in reducing teen drinking, driving, and other derivative consequences. A social science experiment of this kind, conducted by competent professionals, must meet the ethical guidelines for conducting research on human subjects. In a professional or academic organization, a proposal must be submitted to, and approved by, a Human Subjects Research Review Board.

It is unlikely that this kind of research would ever be approved. While deception is allowed in social science research, it is balanced against the potential physical and psychological harm to the participants. The researchers must obtain the informed consent of the participants. If the participants are under 18, then the signed consent of parents is required. In some cases, the participants under 18 must also sign a form or give an assent indicating willingness to be involved. Signed consent is also required by the participating institutions. In this case they are the school system and the police department.

Should this experiment be approved, there would be a requirement to provide clinical supervision of the process, appropriate debriefing of the students, and counselors available for managing the reactions of individual students.

I sent an email to the faculty in my psychology department and many of my students. I teach psychological research methods at the graduate and undergraduate levels. I asked them for their views on the ethics of doing this kind of social science research. I'll let you know the responses I get.

The guidance counselor and the police are not conducting a social science experiment. However, some of the same issues are involved.

1. Do we know that deceptive communication about drunk driving that personalizes, shocks, and traumatizes students is effective in reducing teen drinking, driving, and other derivative consequences? This is not my research area but it would nice to know if the school and the police have empirical evidence of its efficacy.

2. The guidance counselor intended to 'traumatize' the students, yet there was no indication that clinical services and counseling were available for students during and following the perpetration of the hoax.

3. I did not read that parents, the school attorney, student representatives, and other professionals were involved in the planning and decision making leading up to the event.

4. Police officers are not curriculum developers nor pedagogic experts.

5. The guidance counselor has a scoop of cottage cheese for brains.

6. There are other approaches to changing student behavior that do not involve these draconian measures.

Here's a response I received from one of my students:

"As the mother of a teenager daughter - I definitely agree ... that this would not be appropriate. Yes, we want the children to learn - but telling them their particular friends/classmates were killed - is going to far.

"It will not deter them from drinking, driving or riding - what it will do - is create a rift between the age groups because the teens will no longer feel that they can trust those they are supposed to look up to. I really think the lines of communication would suffer a true breakdown.

At my daughter's school - [current population is 3,425 ...of a similar size to the school in question] - they have a day of silence for teens that were killed in alcohol related incidents. It is run by the SADD club at the school. Everyone is aware of what is going on and what is going to happen. What they do is - designate students - who are dressed all in black - and throughout the day -the grim reaper visits classrooms and removes the students. No one is supposed to talk to the kids dressed in black - hence the "silence" but everyone knows that the student is representing someone killed in a drunk driving accident.

"It has tremendous impact on the kids - they are all involved in it and much open discussion goes on before the day and for weeks afterwards. Since it is interactive - I feel it really works. Some people say we have to learn from our mistakes - but generally I feel that we learn from what we "gather" the information to be. SO, good information, presented in a fashion that can be absorbed by teens and gets the message across - is the only ethical route to take."

Thanks so much for looking into this, Norman. It's great to have science on the case.

I would like to hear more about this. The story has skimpy bones and I get the impression that data was not shaed.

More details on the hoax are found in an article at:,0,7014485.storycid=119249556#comment-119249556

Here is a quote.

“The stunt was a twist on a program called Every 15 Minutes, which was designed in the early 1990s, when someone was killed an average of once every 15 minutes in alcohol-related accidents. By 2006, the frequency dropped to once every 39 minutes, according to
Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which is not associated with the program.

“In California, the state highway patrol, local law enforcement agencies and schools use the curriculum authored by the Every 15 Minutes Organization, based in Lehigh Valley, Pa.

“El Camino officials agreed to try to give students the experience of real grief.”

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