Just after the morning Pledge of Allegiance last Wednesday, students at Brodhead High School received a startling announcement.
Four of their classmates had been killed in a car crash involving texting and driving.
In Sam Bolen’s algebra class, people began stirring.
Brodhead is a city in rural Wisconsin, about 100 miles southwest of Milwaukee. With a population of about 3,000, it is the kind of place where everyone knows everybody else.
“They went into detail about how one of them was rushed to the hospital,” Bolen, a junior, told The Washington Post. “I was pretty upset. It is a really small school, like, most of the people really knew who they were. You kind of know who everybody is in a smaller school.”
Bolen texted his mother, and many other students did the same with their parents, he said.
“A lot of our fellow friends and students actually started crying,” Brodhead student Madison Trombley told NBC 15 News, which first reported the incident.
The person making the announcement waited 10 minutes, then said that the previous message had actually been part of a drill about safe driving techniques.
There had not been a car crash.
The four students were not dead after all.
According to NBC 15, the “deceased” students who participated in the drill were told not to use their phones to reply to classmates.
Questions about whether the school crossed a line to get its safe-driving message out have divided its students and the community. Bolen and his mother said they have received intense backlash since he gave an interview to NBC 15 last week.
“There’s been a parent that said, ‘If you have a child who’s offended by this, you are raising a weak, drama-filled child,'” Bolen said this week. “It is kind of uncomfortable when you know that teachers are even talking bad about students who are upset.”
Brodhead School District Superintendent Leonard Lueck told The Post in an email that the drill was intended to bring awareness to teen driving safety but acknowledged “problems with this activity due to communication issues that occurred.”
“While we stand by the worthiness of the activity, we recognize the flaws with how it was communicated,” Lueck wrote. “We will evaluate the value of this activity and either make changes to how it is communicated or not do the activity again.”
Lueck added that the district formally apologized to parents and students “for any undue stress this activity may have caused.”
On Facebook, a student named Miranda Ryser, who identified herself as a student council member, posted several impassioned messages on Facebook in defense of the drill following the NBC 15 report.
“To the people who are upset about what happened at school today, good,” Ryser wrote. “I hope you’re upset about it because I would rather have you upset and pissed off at the student council and the principal for a day, instead of being depressed because one of your classmates ACTUALLY died. I get that some people were already affected by other car accidents but it happens. People die on the daily basis and it happens. Touchy subject or not it happens and it shows that it can happen unexpectedly.
She added: “If we did anything like this in another way, no one would listen or pay attention to ANYTHING. Try warning high school students of the dangers they just don’t care.”
Nearly 60 percent of crashes involving teen drivers have some form of distraction in the six seconds leading up to the accident, according to a report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
In about 12 percent of the cases studied, the distraction was cellphone use. The percentage of teens in crashes using cellphones has remained about the same since 2007, but researchers found that teen drivers are using them less for talking and listening and more for reasons that require looking at the phone.
Sarah Bolen, Sam’s mother, said they are not criticizing the student council or the message; on the contrary, she said, Sam is named after his uncle, who was killed by a drunk driver, which made the fake death announcements even more upsetting.
But she did not approve of the way the school staff members and administrators handled the exercise.
“It’s almost insulting, in a way,” she said of the school’s approach, which she called a scare tactic. “I don’t feel that you need to go to those kinds of extremes to teach a lesson. It minimizes other people’s feelings who have actually gone through it.”
What some classmates found bizarre was that the fake death announcements continued through the day. In the second hour, it was the school principal who came on to tell the student body that four other classmates had “died.”
And then, during the school’s official morning announcements that day — akin to a student-run newscast — two classmates delivered this:
“These are your morning announcements. Currently today it is the 26th. There have been a series of wrecks and multiple reckless driving things happening currently around Brodhead. We’ve currently lost a handful of fellow students, and we’re going to show you some images of their lives now. We’d like you to give them a moment of silence.”
For about a minute, photos of several Brodhead students flashed on the screen against a haunting piano and violin tune.
“Today make sure you take a moment and think about all your loved ones as those were pretty sad moments there,” the student broadcasters said in their sign-off. “As well as drive safe . . . have a good day.”
Finally, after a rundown of the day’s cafeteria menu and a volleyball team fundraiser, two adults appeared on screen in the same video to give an “update” about four other students who had been “T-boned by a drunk driver.”
Somberly, one recited the names of the students who had been “killed.”
By then, most of the student body knew the announcements were not real, and the “dead” students were still at school, dressed in black.
“You just kind of became numb to it,” Bolen said. “They just kept doing it. It just didn’t really make sense.”
At the end of the day, Bolen said, there was an assembly where the school’s principal called out students who were upset.
“He yelled that ‘if anyone has a problem about it, their parents can call me tomorrow,'” Bolen said. “He was very standoffish about it.”
Reached by phone Monday, Brodhead High School Principal Jim Matthys cut short inquiries about the announcements.
“I don’t have any comment for you, I’m sorry,” Matthys said before hanging up.
Sarah Bolen said that attitude was part of the reason she has not tried to contact the school or district. Given the comments she has read since the incident was first reported, she fears that even more vitriol will be directed at those who disagreed with the drill — but she said she thought it was important to speak out.
“I want to note that there’s better ways to go about teaching our children, and that’s not through fear,” she said. “It’s not fear-based. It’s with compassion, and having compassion is not weakness. It’s actually the opposite.”