When Weyauwega-Fremont High School students walked into their gym last week, they had no idea two caskets would soon be in front of them.
What they initially saw were a podium, vases of silk flowers and several rows of folding chairs.
Next, music filled the gym.
Then, they watched as two caskets were brought into the gym.
Family members walked in and placed a picture and flowers on the top of each closed casket.
They paused as they stopped before each one, some touching the caskets before taking a seat.
“We’re here to answer questions about choices, life and death,” said Rev. Phil Wells, of Faith Community Church in Waupaca.
Students and faculty in communities throughout the state dealt with such questions this past year after teens died in crashes caused by drunk drivers.
The difference in Weyauwega last Wednesday, Sept. 26 was that the funeral was not a real one. The two caskets were empty.
For months, members of the high school’s FFA chapter planned a drunken driving simulation and mock funeral.
The drunken driving simulation took place at the Waupaca County Fairgrounds in Weyauwega.
The chapter does the simulation every three years.
In last week’s scenario, one car had students headed back to an underage drinking party, while the other car had a group of girls who had just gone bowling.
The driver of the car filled with underage drinkers ran a stop sign and hit the car full of girls returning from a night of bowling.
Students and teachers watched the aftermath, as one student called 911.
Soon, a police squad and ambulances arrived, as well as members of the Weyauwega Fire Department.
ThedaStar landed, and Waupaca County Coroner Barry Tomaras demonstrated what happens at the scene of such as accident and he took pictures and lifted the sheets covering the victims.
“This is the best way we can depict what happens in a crash like this,” said Brandon Leschke, of the Weyauwega Police Department.
After the simulation, students walked from the fairgrounds to the high school.
The mock funeral in the gym included teachers, students and family members of those portraying the fatal victims of the accident.
“I’m sure Cassie and her friends thought they were invicible,” said Brad Rucks.
His daughter and Maggie Knecht, both seniors at the high school, were the two victims in the scenario.
High school teacher Tom Chase was among the teachers who participated in the mock funeral.
As he stood before the two caskets, he told the students to remember what they experienced.
“You have to decide today how this affects you,” Chase said.
Before the mock funeral ended, students brought two picture boards into the gym and placed them near the gym doors. Students were told to look at the pictures as they left the gym.
Matt Wilbert, principal of the high school, said they were part of a powerful experience.
“We want you to know how much we care about you. We need you safe,” he said.
Sandy Dykes and Connie Peterson are the advisers of the school’s FFA chapter.
“We decided to do a funeral,” Dykes said, “because we thought it would be more of an impact on the kids.”
The FFA students plan a drunken driving simulation every three years.
In the past, a Waupaca County judge explained went would happen to the driver who caused such an accident that included fatalties.
Peterson said the mock funeral resulted in an element of surprise.
Dykes said it took a lot of planning to coordinate the emergency personnel and that during the rest of that school day, students were pulled from class every 15 minutes to signify that someone is killed by a drunk driver every 15 minutes.
“If you can save one kid’s life, it is worth it,” she said.
Wilbert said the feedback he received was that the mock funeral was a good closure activity to the drunken driving simulation.
“There was a lot of processing going on here – among the students and adults,” he said. “A big ‘thank you’ to the FFA, Waupaca County emergency services and Connie Peterson and Sandy Dykes for setting this all up.”