Program stages drunken driving crash for juvenile justice center

Commander Rene De Luna speaks to a group of an cadets from Donna at the Judge Mario E. Ramirez, Jr., Juvenile Justice Center's Boot Camp Facility on Tuesday, April 23, 2019, in Weslaco. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com

WESLACO — Police and fire sirens wailed as emergency responders arrived at the head-on collision and began tending to passengers. One was pronounced dead, having been thrown through the windshield by the impact, and another — who was alive but in critical condition — had to be extricated. A young man was also quickly taken into custody after stumbling through a field sobriety test.

While crashes like this are all too common in the Rio Grande Valley, this one fortunately wasn’t real, but staged. It was part of “Shattered Dreams,” a two-day program to educate students about the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

Cadets at the Judge Mario E. Ramirez Jr. Juvenile Justice Center in Weslaco participated in the program this week, the first time the boot camp facility for at-risk young men aged 13 to 17 years old has put it on.

For the teens, many of whom are on the cusp of finishing the months-long program and will soon be released on parole, it was a reminder of how their lives, and those of others, could be changed within minutes because of a bad decision.

“I can stand here and tell you countless stories of young students who took that decision of driving while intoxicated,” state District Judge Renee Rodriguez-Betancourt, who presides over the county’s juvenile court, told the cadets before the crash scene enactment. “And not individuals who had a criminal history … individuals who had never been in trouble, who had plans to go to college, to make something of themselves … and their life, their dreams have been shattered, along with the individual and the family of the individual who died in that accident.”

Actual Weslaco police officers and firefighters took part in Tuesday’s re-enactment and cadets played the roles of the passengers. Cadets’ family members were also invited to watch as were students in the Edcouch-Elsa Independent School District’s criminal justice program.

One 17-year-old cadet assumed the role of the driver. Having participated in obstacle courses the day before while wearing fatal vision goggles that simulate being drunk or under the influence of drugs, he had an understanding of how much his motor skills could be affected.

A mock crash scene is on display during an event to educate cadets and also to bring awareness to Distracted Driving Month at the Judge Mario E. Ramirez, Jr., Juvenile Justice Center’s Boot Camp Facility on Tuesday, April 23, 2019, in Weslaco. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com

“It’s not the same as being you normal (when you are) drinking and driving,” the cadet who played the driver said. “You probably don’t see a stop sign or see someone walking and you could run over them.

It wasn’t just cadets who were surprised at how difficult it was to complete obstacles while wearing the goggles.

“Even for the drill instructors — they tried it and they didn’t think it was going to be that bad until they realized it was actually real difficult,” another 17-year-old cadet said.

Their message for teens like themselves is to call a taxi, rideshare service or a family member or friend if they are under the influence, because the consequences of getting behind the wheel and killing another driver or pedestrian are too great.

The idea to bring the “Shattered Dreams” program to the bootcamp came from Devany Medrano, who started at the center as a master of social work intern and was recently hired as a caseworker. She learned about the program while interning with the Pharr Police Department, which puts it on in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district. Because many of the cadets struggle with truancy, she wanted to ensure they too would have the opportunity to experience it and organized it to coincide with Alcohol Awareness Month.

“I went in there one day and (asked the cadets), ‘How many of you guys have been victims or have personally gotten behind the wheel under the influence,’ and all hands went up,” Medrano said. “I knew that it was going to create an impact and that all of them were going to take something from it.”

Since taking the bench in 2017, Rodriguez-Betancourt has yet to have a juvenile defendant facing an intoxicated manslaughter charge appear before her, but she sees many young defendants with drug possession, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle or reckless driving charges. Most of the young people who come before her, regardless of the charge, test positive for some type of substance, she said, which is why she believes “Shattered Dreams” is a program “everyone should see and engage in.”