Program steers students from driving while drunk

As an act of symbolism, Death showed his face to Sequim High School juniors and seniors last month.

The biannual Grim Reaper program had 26 students pretending to be dead during school from May 20-21. Every 15 minutes, the "Grim Reaper," played by Lowell Jons, Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe youth/teen development coordinator, took a pre-selected student from class.

The students' faces were painted and they returned to class wearing black robes and were forbidden to speak.

Twenty-six students were chosen, representing the number of teens who died during that time span across the country in alcohol and drug-related vehicle incidents.

"By association alone, you are going to run into someone who has been affected," said student participant Robbie Blenk.

The 26 students remained together, not communicating with anyone until the school assembly on May 21.

They spent the night of May 20 at the Sequim Boys & Girls Club with parent chaperones, coordinated by students Alli Cutting and Blaire Maloney.

"We really wanted to give people the effect that we were dead," Cutting said.

While they were at the club, the "dead" students listened to Jacqueline Russell from Sequim, who spoke to them about the death of her son Ryan, a 17-year-old Sequim High junior who was riding his bicycle when he was struck by a drunken driver in 1997. A Sequim Police officer also spoke and a social worker led team-building activities.

As part of the program, representatives from Washington State Patrol, Sequim Valley Funeral Chapel and the Rev. Maggie Bourne-Raiswell delivered a simulated death notification Wednesday evening to the home of "dead" student Ashley Fuentes.

Mary and Milton Fuentes were told that their daughter would not be coming home because a drunken driver killed her. They were asked to write a letter to their "deceased" daughter. Ashley and her parents read their letters to each other on stage at the general assembly the next day.

At that assembly, the juniors and seniors heard guest speaker George Fraser, whose son died in a vehicle crash in August 2000 while riding with a friend who had been driving with a 0.11 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level. His son would have turned 28 on the day of the assembly.

"I hope this is enough for you to understand what happened ... but more importantly ... get our youth to understand the value of family and leave them with a message of hope and a message of 'have fun,' but be careful," Fraser said.

"What would your families do without you?"

The Grim Reaper program has been used nationwide since the early 1990s. It was established to help students make mature choices involving alcohol consumption and driving, and/or riding with someone under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The Sequim event was sponsored by the Sequim Parents and Resources of the East County Taskforce, and PRoTECT, a coalition that helps fund it with various grants. Grim Reaper Day started in 2003 with PRoTECT taking it over in 2005.

Dave Salmon, co-coordinator for the event and a retired Sequim firefighter, said the program promotes that students not drink and drive, not ride with someone who has been drinking and wear their seat belts.

"The success of the program keeps me doing it," Salmon said.

"Not a single high school junior or senior has been involved in a 'driving under the influence' fatality since the program started."

Reach Matthew Nash at

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