On a Monday morning last month, highway patrol officers visited 20 classrooms at El Camino High School to announce some horrible news: Students had been killed in car wrecks over the weekend.
Classmates wept. Some became hysterical.
A few hours and many tears later, though, the pain turned to fury when the teenagers learned that it was all a hoax - a scared-straight exercise designed by school officials to dramatize the consequences of drinking and driving.
As seniors prepare for graduation parties Friday, school officials in the largely prosperous San Diego suburb are defending themselves against allegations they went too far.
At assemblies where speakers talked about the dangers of drunk driving, some students held posters that read: "Death is real. Don't play with our emotions."
Michelle de Gracia, 16, was in physics class when an officer announced her missing classmate David, a popular basketball player,
died instantly after being rear-ended by a drunk driver. She felt nauseated but was too frozen to cry.
"They got the shock they wanted," she said.
Some of her classmates were hysterical, prompting the teacher to tell them immediately the death was staged.
"People started yelling at the teacher," she said. "It was pretty hectic."
Others, including many who heard the "news" between classes, were left in the dark until the 26 missing students reappeared hours later to enact a fatal traffic accident.
Carolyn Magos, 15, thought there might have been a gang shooting when she saw clusters of kids crying in the hall.
"You feel betrayed by your teachers and administrators, these people you trust," Magos said. "But then I felt selfish for feeling that way, because, I mean, if it saves one life it's worth it."
The stunt was a twist on a program called Every 15 Minutes, which was designed in the early 1990s, when someone was killed an average of once every 15 minutes in alcohol-related accidents. By 2006, the frequency dropped to once every 39 minutes, according to
Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which is not associated with the program.
In California, the state highway patrol, local law enforcement agencies and schools use the curriculum authored by the Every 15 Minutes Organization, based in Lehigh Valley, Pa.
Here's how the program normally works: Students chosen to symbolize the dead are pulled out of their classes by someone in a Grim Reaper costume while their obituaries are read aloud.
A few hours later, they reappear in ghoulish makeup to enact a traffic accident at an assembly. Rescue workers whisk "victims" from a mangled car to a hospital or morgue. The "dead" then spend the night at a hotel isolated from friends and family before returning the next day for an assembly with parents and professional speakers.
At El Camino, the students who were in on the secret shunned the Grim Reaper skit.
"We didn't want kids laughing at it," said Michelle Molin, 17, a junior. "It's like Halloween."
El Camino officials agreed to try to give students the experience of real grief. They defend how they handled the exercise.
"They were traumatized, but we wanted them to be traumatized," said guidance counselor Lori Tauber. "That's how they get the message."
The school had counselors on standby to calm kids who were visibly upset but didn't anticipate the power of cell phones to spread the word.
Before class, a freshman who knew her sister was playing dead texted her friends to say the girl had been killed. Word spread quickly among the school's 3,100 students, many of whom clustered between periods crying.
Even administrators who knew about the program thought there had been a terrible coincidence.
"I got a call from the principal's secretary saying, 'I heard one of our Every 15 Minutes students was really in an accident!"' said Tauber. "And I was like, 'No, they're right here."'
Dean Wilson, executive director of Every 15 Minutes, said he didn't endorse the hoax. He knew of only a handful of schools where students were told a death was real.
In 2002, a high school in Eagle Grove, Iowa, north of Des Moines, used a hoax death to "step up" the program, said Mark Kay. His son, Aaron, dropped out of sight after school, while his brother messaged friends asking if they'd seen him. The next morning, students were invited to view a coffin in the school foyer where the boy was playing dead.
Oceanside schools superintendent Larry Perondi said he fielded only a few calls from parents, while the PTA chapter said it had not heard any complaints.
Wendy Reynolds, a former prosecutor who spoke at El Camino High about her experience being orphaned by a drunk driver, said most students would benefit.
"I think we save lives if one kid makes a better choice every time he gets in a car," she said.
Perondi said the program students got the message.
"We did this in earnest," he said. "This was not done to be a prankster."