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No easy answers
By REBECCA STEFFAN, Enterprise Staff Writer

June 21, 2007

SARANAC LAKE — While an investigation into the May drowning of two Paul Smith’s College students continues, the college and the Franklin County District Attorney’s Office are considering various courses of action in the hope of preventing similar accidents in the future.

The drowning in Lower St. Regis Lake, just 100 feet from the campus’ shoreline, was the third fatal accident and the fourth and fifth deaths involving underage Paul Smith’s students and alcohol in the last three years.

Ideas such as banning alcohol from campus and/or the surrounding state Forest Preserve have been floated by college officials, but no decisions have yet been made.

Paul Smith’s President John Mills, along with about 60 other college presidents and mayors from across the state, attended the “New York State Summit: Preventing Alcohol Abuse and Improving the Campus Community Culture,” Monday and Tuesday in Albany. The forum offered workshops and lectures on the issues campuses face across the nation and how colleges can improve their own programs to better deal with illegal or excessive alcohol consumption on campus.

Mills said he realized that there is no one “cookie cutter” answer to drinking problems on campuses. He said many college presidents said they found their programs to curb drinking on campus worked for a while but then became outmoded.

“It’s not a solvable problem if society is sending us more and more students who are engaging in alcohol use before college,” Mills said. “We’re not creating the problem; it’s coming through the door. ... How do you control it when they’re legal adults and living on their own?”

One of Paul Smith’s programs provides students with information on how to drink, if they’re going to, and not become intoxicated or become involved in binge drinking. Mills said it is a delicate position to be in because the college doesn’t condone underage drinking, but nor can it ignore the fact that it does happen.

“I am an educational institution, and I have to care for the health and welfare of my students,” he said. College underage drinking is not a Paul Smith’s problem but a “national problem of monumental proportions,” he added.

Students are required, whether underage or in violation of campus safety codes, to attend counseling sessions at the Student Life Office on campus. Paul Smith’s spokesman Ken Aaron said Wednesday that the number of counseling sessions correspond to the severity of and the number of offenses.

“We evaluate our drinking policies every year and are always making changes,” Aaron said. “None of us have all the answers.”

DA focuses on alcohol sources

Sean W. Cornell, 20, of Manchester Center, Vt. and 18-year-old Lee Walker of Enosburg Falls, Vt. died in early May after their canoes tipped as they and four others, who made it safely to shore, were coming back from Peter’s Rock on Lower St. Regis Lake. It was the last day of classes before exams, and toxicology reports revealed that both were under the influence of alcohol at the time of the accident. But it’s hard to tell what role that played in their deaths as they also were not wearing lifejackets and the water was cold.

Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne said an investigation into Cornell and Walker’s deaths is ongoing and will continue in the fall when students return to Paul Smith’s after summer break. Champagne said he anticipates having to subpoena students who do not willingly come forward to talk about the accident. The state police Bureau of Criminal Investigation in Ray Brook conducted its own investigation, but Champagne said he’s now interested how Walker and Cornell were able to drink while underage and on campus.

“There’s not necessarily any appropriate charges for fatalities,” Champagne said. “But there may very well be charges for those who provided the alcohol.”

Champagne said he has lingering questions about who bought the alcohol, how it was distributed to the students and who actually consumed it.

“My office is, obviously, gravely concerned with having five tragedies in a three-year period at one college in this county.”

In 2005, the college suffered two fatal accidents within eight days of each other. On Jan. 29, 2005, PSC student Stephen “Scuba” Welch, 19, died after crashing his truck while driving back to campus under the influence of alcohol. Then on Feb. 6, PSC student Joshua Rau, 20, and visiting Quinnipiac University student Kristine Guest, 20, died when a snowmobile Rau was driving on the frozen lake crashed into Peter’s Rock. Guest was a passenger. both had been drinking at a bonfire on campus, according to Guest’s father who is suing the college in an attempt to change its alcohol policy.

Champagne said his office is interested in working with the community, the college and the county’s Underage Drinking Task Force to address the drinking problem.

“We would all like to think these are isolated, tragic incidents, but it’s clearly reached a point of critical mass when five people dying is five people too many,” he said. “We (should) try to learn from what has occurred to make sure this never happens again.”

Alcohol ban for surrounding land?

The college, the DA’s office and the state Department of Environmental Conservation are currently discussing whether or not alcohol could be prohibited on the state-owned land near Paul Smith’s campus, where the college has easements.

According to DEC spokesman Dave Winchell, the DEC is currently in discussion with Paul Smith’s College to determine how it can best assist the college in “addressing underage drinking problems and prevent further tragedies that result from underage drinking.”

“It should be pointed out that there is already regulation in place that prohibits the possession of alcohol by persons under the age of 21 on state lands,” Winchell wrote in an e-mail today. “This regulation is applicable on conservation easement lands for which the public has rights to access, such as the Paul Smith Easement Lands.”

“If there’s a way to flat-out prohibit the consumption of alcohol, even if you’re 21, that’s the first step,” Champagne said.

Lake location is “blessing and curse”

Champagne said this issue really “brings up the blessing and curse” of Paul Smith’s College.

“You don’t have a lot of colleges that are right on the lake, and you have high-risk activities associated with the lake to begin with, and when you add alcohol to that, it adds a curse to a blessing,” Champagne said.

“They don’t have any place local to drink if they’re 21 — they have a lake.”

Contact Rebecca Steffan at 891-2600 ext. 25 or rsteffan@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.

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