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Mock Car Crash Returns as Cautionary Tale for BHS Seniors

Jun 28, 2021 06:00AM ● By Pamela Johnson

Lea Dennet and Tommy Mailhot seek to comfort each other after the car crash. (Submitted photo)

written by Marjorie Turner Hollman, Contributing Writer

Melissa Newman has been organizing car crashes for fifteen years, and she is very good at it. The first “crashes” were planned with Firefighter Chris Mach (who came up with the idea), and she has continued organizing them more recently with Lt. Brad Kwatcher of the Bellingham Fire Department.

These are mock car crashes. No one actually gets hurt in these events, no one dies, no one even gets arrested. But to dramatize what could or might happen, the script Newman writes brings together both Bellingham High School students from this year’s graduating class and adults who work in official roles in the community. Some of the participating adults have faced challenging events in their daily work similar to those portrayed during the “mock car crash.”
Newman, whose official title is Coordinator of Reprographics, is based at Bellingham High School and is the Student Advisor for SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) and the Yearbook advisor. She explained, “I love my job, working with the kids. I’m not a teacher, so I have a different relationship with the kids. I am able to communicate on a different level, a very different dynamic—I love it.”

Newman was not able to stage the Mock Car Crash event last year because of the pandemic, but students from this year’s graduating class approached her and asked if they could do it again. “Our class needs this,” they told her.

Each year the program has followed the same basic script. Marty’s Auto Service towed two heavily damaged cars to the high school for the first stage of the “Mock Car Crash.” Bellingham Police and Fire departments responded with sirens wailing after the “crash” while the entire senior class sat riveted, this year watching as Tatum Lee was taken from the scene by ambulance, while Adam LaRose—pronounced “dead” at the scene—was placed in a body bag by staff from Cartier’s Funeral Home. Matt Wilson, the driver, who was supposedly drunk, was arrested at the scene, placed in the back of the police car and driven off.

Students then moved to the school auditorium, where curtains opened on a hospital scene. Medical staff, played by Dr. Eric Goedecke, Becky Pearcy, Sam Vars, and Jessica Molloy, attempted to revive Tatum, who “died” on the table.

The next scene was a courtroom, where Bellingham Attorney Jeffrey Goldstein took the stage, assuming the role of judge in the courtroom. Matt Wilson appeared for sentencing with his parents, David and Diane Wilson, at his side. After being sentenced to jail, Matt was then taken away in handcuffs.

The final scene brought back staff from Cartier’s Funeral Home, who rolled two caskets into the staged funeral home. Large photos (courtesy of Staples) of the students who had “died” were displayed as a stark reminder of young lives snuffed out.

In the past Newman has taken on the role of the mother reading a eulogy for her child. Newman explained that she always thought of her own children as she wrote these scripts and then portrayed the grieving parent.

This year, Edward and Cheri Lee read a eulogy for their daughter Tatum, and Jack and Susanne LaRose read a eulogy for their son Adam. “I was relieved of that burden, and in truth, in the past, without the real parents, it was not as powerful. This was the second time I asked the LaRoses to take on this role, but I promised I would not ask them to do it again,” Newman said. “It is so hard.”

The impact of the program does not stop at the school doors. Newman insists that the participants in the car crash keep their phones off for the rest of the day, reinforcing the message that when a person dies, they really are gone. Newman explained, “The ones who participated in the crash program can talk with each other, but they can’t talk with their other friends. Even Matt, sentenced to jail, had to keep isolated as well. You don’t get the freedom to make phone calls when you’re in jail.”

Newman stressed to the participants of the Mock Car Crash that they now have a responsibility to themselves and their friends to keep them safe.
“My goal is to make a difference in even one or two kids’ lives. If we can have some sort of impact it’s enough.”
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