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
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
“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
“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
“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
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
“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
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