By AdriAnna Newberry
For the Redoubt Reporter
Ribbons and speeches did not prepare Caitlin Green for seeing her friends in body bags.
The school day Oct. 21 at Nikiski Middle-High School had started as they normally do for Caitlin, with her first two class hours as an office aide. After that, the junior started seeing something eerie — people with white-painted faces and black shirts walking around, and an Alaska State Trooper in the hallways.
What was going on?
The white-faced people grew in number, and Caitlin began wondering if she would be next. In class, Caitlin watched as a trooper and a member of the student council periodically pulled people out. The students would return later, painted and silent. Friends of the chosen person were given black ribbons to wear. No reason or explanation was given.
The white-faced students were playfully teased, but they didn’t say a word, even when they apparently wanted to. Some teachers told jokes, but they stayed stoic, although it took obvious effort, Caitlin said.
During sixth period, favorite teacher Vern Kornstad was removed, just like the students.
The assembly came in seventh period.
Filing into the auditorium, Caitlin and her friends didn’t at first see anything out of the ordinary. “What kind of assembly was this supposed to be?” they wondered.
Then a music video played on the screen, and the purpose of the Red Ribbon Week program became clear. The video showed a teen dying in a car accident caused by intoxicated driving.
Shown next was a slide show of the Nikiski Middle-High School students who had been pulled out of their classes that day. Each one had a caption telling how they had “died” in accidents caused by drivers under the influence. As the slide show played, each person shown was placed into a body bag and lined out on the stage. At the end, the stage was filled with 35 body bags, and the Nikiski Fire Department placed Kornstad onto a gurney and wheeled him away.
Next, Drew Shassetz took the podium. Drew, a senior at Skyview High School, had been in a reckless driving accident when he was 16. He spoke for about 10 minutes as a slide show played pictures from his accident, hospital stay and recovery. Out of the whole assembly, it was Shassetz’s story that had the most touching impact on Caitlin, she said. No drugs were involved, no alcohol — it was showing off which caused him to crash, placing him in a coma with a severe brain injury.
He spent months in the hospital, and had to relearn how to walk and talk. Throughout the speech, Sharon Shassetz, Drew’s mother, came forward to prompt him due to short-term memory problems also caused by the injury.
“Everybody was in tears … he was so sweet and nice and so very sad,” Caitlin said. When Drew finished, the students rose in a standing ovation.
Sharon Shassetz spoke next, then Trooper Gordon Young and Principal John O’Brien. They all tried to impress upon the students the tragedy caused by careless and impaired driving.
To show them that actions impact others, the students wearing black armbands — given to them because they were friends of the white-faced “dead” — were asked to stand up. Nearly everyone in the auditorium did. Each of them represented those affected by the loss of a friend to impaired driving.
The motivation for the program was to, “Help the students be aware of the consequences for their actions. The hope is that a program like this will help them be more aware. Maybe it will have an effect and maybe save lives through greater awareness,” said Gary Wiebel, school counselor.
The program is called Every 15 Minutes, since a student is removed from class at that interval, to reflect the statistic when the program originated that someone in the U.S. was killed in a drug-, alcohol- or careless-driving accident about every 15 minutes.
Wiebel had heard of Skyview High School using the program last year and decided to run it by the Nikiski Student Council. Jordan Harrison, student council president, had heard of the program, but was not sure what it entailed, he said. But once the details were laid out, he thought it sounded like a good idea, he said.
Although the idea was pitched by Wiebel and involved the participation of the Nikiski Fire Department and Alaska State Troopers, the majority of the program was run by the students, Wiebel said. It was Jordan who walked around choosing students for “death.” The photos taken of the students for the slide show were done by Ashley Epperheimer, and the video and slide show were put together by Megan Hansen.
Caitlin believes the program will have the desired effect. In the classrooms and hallways after the assembly, it was the main topic of conversation.
“Usually (for Red Ribbon Week) they just give us ribbons and nobody seems affected, but this year was different. (Andrew Shassetz was what) really stood out and made the biggest difference,” she said.
Caitlin has been to schools in several different states and said that Nikiski is different.
“(It’s) amazing. It was really good to see the school come together like that,” she said.
AdriAnna Newberry is doing an internship at the Redoubt Reporter.