They call the program Every 15 Minutes, and it's probably one of the most effective programs there is in curbing teen drinking and driving.
Headed up to Emmet County Victim's Witness Coordinator Michelle Howing, the program brings together counseling staff, law enforcement, emergency services and other professionals to create a real-life scenario of the consequences of drinking alcohol and then getting into a car.
What began with a few snickers upon seeing the Grim Reaper escorting one of the walking dead Thursday morning evolved by the next day into stunned silence as several hundred students watched a video, trial and funeral of Marshall Klingenberg, who with fellow NU senior Aric Runge, was a victim of a fatal car crash in which one of the drivers, Chase Paulson, had been drinking. Ashley Olson, who was riding in Runge's car, was crippled for life while Dena Looft was the only one of the five who was relatively unscathed.
Chase Paulson found a grisly scene after the fatal car accident, a dramatic presentation to North Union High School Students on the dangers of drinking and driving.
Photo by Michael Tidemann
Thursday began with a series of beeps over the school public address system, followed by a steady flatlining sound. Then the Grim Reaper entered each classroom, selecting a victim who was escorted to the school board room - usually in tears - and counseled about what would happen over the next two days. Cosmetic "injuries" were applied, and every member of the walking dead was prohibited from talking to classmates through Thursday - even prohibited from practices.
Junior Autumn Boland was selected as one of the walking dead at 8:45 a.m. Thursday.
"I was scared. I didn't know what was going on. I was so confused," said Boland.
Her classmates were also confused.
And then the Grim Reaper placed a hand on her shoulder.
"I just like freaked out. It made you realize that it could be anyone."
Sophomore Colton Nicoson was selected at 11:12.
"They were making me laugh." Well, they were at first.
And then it started to get real. Way too real.
Sophomore Sarah Rolling was picked at 10:45, and she found herself in tears.
For senior Kaleb Olson, who was chosen during sixth hour, it was real right away. And his classmates were "just dead quiet."
"Not being able to interact with anybody made it more real for me," Olson said.
It was real right away for senior Morgan Rahm too, who was chosen at 9:20.
"It was a little scary, overwhelming," said Rahm. While some classmates were in tears, there was nervous laughter from others.
At noon, students went to the football field parking lot where Chase Paulson surveyed the scene of carnage. "Take it back. Take it back. Take it all back," said Paulson, who called 911. Armstrong police chief Craig Merill was first to arrive on the scene, followed by emergency personnel, including fire trucks and ambulances.
Dead at the scene was Marshall Klingenberg, who had been riding with Paulson and was thrown through the windshield and on top of the other vehicle driven by Aric Runge. In the front seat of Runge's vehicle was Ashley Olson, whose life was saved only by deputies who held a neck wound to keep her from bleeding to death. In the back seat was Dena Looft, the only person other than Paulson who was not killed or severely injured.
After Klingenberg was confirmed dead at the scene, his body was taken away by a hearse. Ambulances took away the other victims and Paulson was placed under arrest.
Students then went to the gym where they witnessed a hospital emergency room scene where Dr. Anthony Cook and the ER team fought to save Runge's life, but failed.
Friday began with a film of the prior day's events, then a trial in which Ashley Olson asked for the maximum sentence for Paulson.
"I just want you know how Chase's actions have impacted my life," said Olson, who said she lost one of her best friends and her boyfriend.
"I never had the chance to tell them the things I always wanted to say but never did. I also will never walk again. I will be in this wheelchair for the rest of my life."
Looft asked for clemency.
"Do not take this man's life as well as the others," she said. "I was one of the lucky ones that did survive and didn't have any fatal injuries."
"You will have to live with this on your conscience," read the statement from Marshall's parents, Lavanda and Madonna Klingenberg. "You took Marshall away from us. We will never know what he could have become or what his kids would look like."
County attorney Doug Hansen asked that the sentences run consecutively, saying, "Two kids are dead. One's in a wheelchair."
Then judge Rosalise Olson pronounced the sentence.
"You, Mr. Paulson, have imposed a life sentence on the parents of two children," said Olson. "Just think of the immeasurable pain that you have imposed on three families."
Saying that the only discretion she had was whether his sentences would run consecutively or concurrently, Olson made them concurrent. That would be only the beginning, though.
"For the rest of your life, you will be paying for this mistake at 17 years old," Olson said.
"Everything you witnessed today and yesterday is real," Hansen told students after the trial, adding that every 15 minutes someone is killed in a fatal accident involving alcohol.
"If you consume alcohol, you do not get into a vehicle and drive," Hansen said. "He (Paulson) didn't intend to kill anybody. He was out for a good time."
Hansen said people who have been drinking lose all sense of judgment as to whether they're able to drive or not.
"It's real. It affects a lot of people. It affects the people that are closest to you."
At Klingenberg's funeral, it was Ashley Olson's memories of him that were probably most moving.
"Ever since we were little babies we went to the same daycare. We knew that we should be friends forever," said Olson. "And now that he's not, there's just a huge hole in my heart. I will remember and cherish him forever."
Three songs later by Elvis - Marshall's favorite, Pastor Lyn Roesler gave the eulogy.
"I don't think I've known a young man who has served the Lord more faithfully than Marshall Klingenberg."
After the interment, the walking dead met in the gym lobby, with lots of hugs for Marshall who came to greet them. The two days had taught them a lot, and a valuable lesson without having to experience real tragedy.
This was real enough.