Every 32 minutes
SARGENT - - Someone dies in an alcohol related traffic accident every 32 minutes in this country. In the time it has taken to write this story, at least two more families have lost a loved one due to drinking and driving.
It is a grim reality. And who better to bring teenagers face-to-face with that reality than the grim reaper himself.
That is the premise of the Grim Reaper Program, sponsored by Safe Communities for Custer County. The committee presented the interactive program at Sargent High School Monday, during which 11 high school students fell "victim" to the grim reaper throughout the school day.
Safe Communities for Custer County has been taking the Grim Reaper Program into area schools for the past six years, and committee members involved say each year is full of emotion. However, this event hit very close to home for one Sargent family.
Alex Hart was one of the students selected by school faculty to participate in the program. When the parents of the participating students are asked for permission to have their child involved, they are also asked to write a good-bye letter to their child. For Vicki Hart, that was especially difficult. You see, Vicki knows first-hand what it's like to lose a loved one to alcohol.
“Thirty-one years ago my brother, Jim, died of alcohol poisoning on his 17th birthday," Vicki told the student body during an assembly Monday afternoon. "I was 18 at the time. I was supposed to be there, to kind of chaperone the party, but I wasn't. I blamed myself for many, many years.
"I was there when they pronounced him dead," an emotional Vicki continued. "I don't really remember most about my senior year after that. It was a very traumatic time. I am here to remind you that alcohol can not only kill you in an accident - alcohol poisoning can kill you too. I still have nightmares, 31 years later."
The students sat silent as Vicki recounted her family's tragic story. The assembly, which took place at the end of the school day, was attended by the entire high school student body and many parents and culminated the day's activity.
Here's how the Grim Reaper Program works. Only a handful of staff and the parents of the intended victims know ahead of time that the program is coming to their school. The students are unaware until the grim reaper, accompanied by police officers, enters the classroom and silently removes the selected student.
As that student is being escorted from the classroom another law enforcement officer reads that teenagers "death notice" to the rest of the class. It is then the students gain some sort of realization of what is happening.
Meanwhile, the "victim" is taken to another room where he or she is given an explanation of what the program entails and why they were chosen. That student is also read the same copy of the death notice their peers heard, as well as the good-bye letter written by their parents.
The student is asked to wear a black T-shirt and not speak to any other students except those also wearing the black T-shirts for the rest of the school day. The goal is to use these chosen students to impact their peers - to give them just a taste of what it would be like to no longer have their friend in school with them. It is an intense program.
Custer County Sheriff Dan Osmond has been involved with the Grim Reaper program for the past five years. Osmond is also a member of the Safe Communities for Custer County Committee. When all the students are gathered for assembly at the end of the day, it is Osmond who addresses them - and he doesn't pull any punches.
He admits to the students that, like many of them, he didn't take the program seriously when he was their age. "I was one of the students chosen in my high school for this, and I just laughed it off too, like some of you guys. But I know deep down inside this touched every one of you, whether you show it or not," Osmond said.
Little did he know at the time he was chose as one of the grim reaper's "victims" that one day he would be the one dealing with the real victims of drinking and driving.
"I don't have enough fingers and toes times three to count the number of deaths I have dealt with due to alcohol," says Osmond.
He went on to share the grisly stories of two such accidents he personally encountered. "When someone answers their door at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning and see me standing there in my uniform, they know it's not good. I wish I would never have to knock on another door and tell that family their loved one is not coming home."
Osmond emphasized to the students the intention of police officers is not to try and make teenagers lives miserable. "We're not there for numbers, we're there to keep you safe," he explained. "I know it might be hard to believe cops really care about you - but we do. In my job I see what happens when you lose against the odds. I see what happens when you make the wrong choices."
Assisting Osmond during the Grim Reaper Program were Dion Neumiller of the Nebraska State Patrol, Blaine Gibbons of the Custer County Sheriff's Office, and Sargent Police Officer JD Keefe. Other committee members taking part in the program were Jessy Goertz, Donna Lawson, Makenzie Wood and Ellen Mortensen.
A total of 11 students were taken from their classrooms throughout the day, and seeing that many kids in black grim reaper T-shirts seemed to put into perspective the tragic "every 32 minutes" statistic. And the timing of the program at the school was no accident.
"Obviously you have a major event going on here this weekend," said Osmond, referring to the school's Prom Saturday night. "Maybe you can draw that correlation on why we are here today.
"If we can make even one of you rethink your decision to drink and drive, then we have accomplished what we came here to do."