I couldn’t believe the news story. Officials at a small-town high school announced four students were killed in an automobile accident. I was horrified, deeply saddened for the loss of those families and for the shock and anxiety of their peers.
Seconds later, the newscaster explained the school’s announcement was a hoax, a trick, a ploy to teach students the dangers of distracted and/or impaired driving. No kids died — thank goodness! For a brief moment, they’d been “dead” to their peers yet were now “alive again.”
My initial relief — joy, even — on behalf of these students flashed into disbelief and then burned into anger.
How dare their school pretend such a thing!
I understand that the school administrators in Brodhead, Wisconsin, wanted to impress the students with the gravity of distracted-driving consequences. I realize they wanted to prevent students from the fatal errors others have made. I agree with and applaud such motives.
I also understand from news reports that the idea for the fake death announcement came from the student council itself. Concerned teens thought this would be an effective way to scare their peers into safer driving habits — a worthy goal.
Doing so in this way was a terrible, counterproductive idea, and the adults at the school should have had the sense to see it.
The Washington Post video clip of the edited announcement showed two adults alternating the following lines:
“We have some bad news. Four students were T-boned, as they ditched school, by a drunk driver …”
“Further information on this accident will be coming…”
“… four students who had the accident, the T-bone by a drunk driver, uh, the unfortunate news is that they did not make it…”
Bad news. Unfortunate news. It went far beyond that.
Students at the high school and their parents (who received distraught texts from their children) were understandably distressed by the “news” of their peers’ deaths. For those who had already lost family members to the violence of drunk or distracted drivers, the shock of such an announcement surely rebooted their grief-induced post-traumatic stress.
And the made-up report of the “deaths” was a slap in the face that trivialized the reality of such incidents for those whose loved ones have died in such ways.
For them — and for everyone with similar backgrounds hearing the news story — the trauma of the untrue announcement had no easy off-switch. Trauma triggers don’t stop sending fight-or-flight chemicals surging through the body and brain just because someone says, “Just kidding. Didn’t happen. All is well.”
My immediate thoughts went to those who have actually lost loved ones due to selfish acts of texting drivers or drunk drivers. Many are open about telling their stories and do so with eloquence. Their genuine emotion and conviction reaches hearts, convincing their audiences to never inflict such harm on those who cross their paths.
Why didn’t the adults at Brodhead High School steer the inexperienced, young student council’s good intentions toward a more responsible, truthful message delivery? Why didn’t they invite real survivors into their school to truly tell the life-long impact of losing loved ones to distracted drivers?
It’s one thing to tell the truth, which can be difficult and even distressing to hear. That is a part of life.
It’s another thing altogether to inflict distress that’s dressed up as if it’s true by those who should be trustworthy. That’s shameful.
I cannot understand why school officials thought lying to students about their peers’ death — THE most irrevocable human condition — would instruct these teenagers. How will these kids trust their school in other matters?
If, heaven forbid, Brodhead ever encounters an incidence of violence such as those that have happened elsewhere, will any of these teens trust directions given for their safety? Or, will they smirk in a fooled-me-once way and say, “Lockdown? Sure. Like there’s really any danger this time. Remember when they told us …”
Do we need to teach our youth (and adults) to exert greater care when driving? Absolutely. Do they need to understand the consequences of taking someone’s life or limbs by distracted driving? Yes. Is the best way to do that by pretend scare tactics which traumatize without teaching truth? Absolutely not.