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North Country Public Radio-Series on Area Campus Alcohol Issues-1 of 3

Alcohol-related deaths at Paul Smiths College spark lawsuit, debate 06/18/07

 This spring, two Paul Smiths College students died following a late-night drinking party. 20 year-old Sean Cornell of Manchester Center, Vermont, and 18-year-old Lee Walker of Enosburg Falls, Vermont drowned when their canoes overturned. They were paddling back to campus across Lower St. Regis Lake. The tragedy followed three alcohol-related deaths at the school in 2005. Some community leaders say Paul Smiths has made huge strides, working to keep students safe. But the school faces a lawsuit and simmering public criticism over its handling of student alcohol abuse. This week, we'll look at the controversy at Paul Smiths College. We'll also look at the changing ethics of alcohol on college campuses. Here's Brian Mann with part one of our special three-part report.

Hear the broadcast.

 Broadcast transcript:

 BM-Reporter, North Country Public Radio

SG-Stephen Guest

JM-John Mills, President Paul Smith’s College in up-state New York

JT- State Police Captain John Tibbitts

SD- Susan Delehanty, Franklin County’s Director of Community Services

RM- Brandon Mosher is a Residence Assistant at Paul Smith’s College

SO- Susan Olsen was a substance abuse prevention specialist at Paul Smith’s College

 BM-This is a story about good times gone horribly wrong.   In February 2005, Stephen Guest answered knock at his front door in West Hartford CT.

 SG-Two local policemen came to our door and gave us the news. 

 BM-His twenty year old daughter, Kristine was dead.  She was at a bonfire party on Lower St Regis Lake organized by students at Paul Smith’s College.  She was riding a snowmobile with 20 year old Paul Smith student, Joshua Rau who also died in the crash.

 SG-What they found when they did the autopsy report, that Josh had a blood alcohol reading well above the legal limit to drive.

 BM-Many of the events that night are in dispute subject to the civil suit filed by Stephen Guest against Paul Smith’s College. But all side agree on one thing, earlier that February evening, Paul Smith security officer named JS and Student Life Director, Tonni Marra when out on the frozen lake.  According to sworn statements given to State Police, in affidavits taken this spring as part of the law suit, JS and Marra suspected that underage students were drinking but JS claims that Marra instructed him not to intervene and she allegedly ordered him not to call state police. In her own statement, Marra said she decided not to intervene more forcibly because “if we have to write people up there’s going to be a riot basically” According to Stephen Guest, it was the school’s administration, not the student’s drinking, that lead to his daughter’s death.

 SG-There was this obviously foreseeable danger that they just turned their backs on.  This is not acceptable behavior.

 BM-That argument is rejected by Paul Smith’s College President John Mills.

,JM-You know when a student is 18 years old, they are considered an adult in many, many ways in this country, including being able to go die for this country.  Yet when it comes to a college we hear we have to be in locas parentis .  How do you balance that? I don’t know, I do not have a solution.

 BM-But another Paul Smith’s student had died just two weeks before in an alcohol related car crash. And in the months that followed, Mills announced that his school would make changes, reforming the school’s drinking and disciplinary policy, partnering in a regional underage drinking task force, and establishing a better relationship with state police.

 State Police Captain John Tibbitts -Paul Smith’s has gone out of there way to communicate with us and to sit down and plan their response.

 BM- State Police Captain John Tibbitts said that after 2005, the school’s administration got serious about underage binge drinking.

 JT-It’s really a daunting task for them over there because, they’re right, they have transitional youth and you know they are feeling their independence and without being able to be with these people, you know, every minute of every day and its real tough to keep a handle on that many kids.

 BM-Paul Smith’s College also formed a community advisory committee lead by Susan Delehanty, Franklin County’s Director of Community Services.  A committee was supposed to draw up specific recommendations for changing Paul Smith’s culture related to alcohol and safety.

 SD-We were offered whatever resources we needed in terms of support.

 JM-But, while Paul Smith’s College instituted many serious reforms based on the committee’s recommendations, North Country Public Radio has learned the committee still had what many members described as strong concerns about some of the school administration’s decisions.  Administrators decided to continue allowing students over the age of 21 to drink in their dorm rooms, and despite deep reservations on the part of committee members, the school actually opened a new campus bar for students of legal drinking age.

 SD- Our opinion and my opinion too is that they needed to limit the availability of alcohol as apposing to increasing the availability. 

 BM-Again Susan Delehanty.

 SD-They are allowing alcohol in the rooms was something that did come up as a concern in our committee and that was something that when the pub was talked about that was really a very controversial issue.  I would say most of the members of the committee felt very strongly that this was not the time to be opening a pub on campus. 

 BM-But Paul Smith’s President John Mills decided to recommend that the pub be opened.  He said that the school’s alcohol policy was scrutinized closely after 2005, he said that it’s similar to those at other schools in the North Country region.  Mills says that adult students have a right to privacy and a right to make their own decisions regarding alcohol.

 JM-I honestly feel that once you got an adult population that is 21 years old, I think it is reasonable to consider ways that they can exercise their legal right.

 BM-Another concern raised by Delehanty’s committee, was the level of faculty buy in. She said that a committee review found that students were hearing a mixed message about the dangers and acceptability of underage drinking. 

 SD-Not everybody on campus embraced the same philosophy of intervening with students when they found there was underage drinking.  There was some discussion about years ago when the drinking age was 18 in New York that faculty often drank with students and there was this acceptance about it as a right of passage and there were still some people that believed that’s in fact a right of passage and that there’s nothing wrong with that, everybody does it and that actually played into a lot of our recommendations in terms of where the college should go next with this.

 BM-Here again, Mills and other campus administrators dispute that concerns existed on campus about the level of faculty commitment to stopping underage drinking.

 JM-I can tell you from speaking to faculty and staff that I have never experience that lack of buy in.  I would verify the overwhelming buy in by the campus community.

 BM-This tension over how to curtail underage and binge drinking at Paul Smith’s College might never have gone public except that this spring, it happened again.  20 year old Sean Cornel of Manchester Center, VT and 18 year old Len Walker of   Hanisburg Falls, VT died after a drinking party.  They were paddling on Lower St. Regis Lake just off shore from campus.  John Mills spoke at a memorial service.

 JM-We can learn from this.  We’re an institution of education that when mistakes are made those are all opportunities for us to learn and become stronger. 

 BM-But it is unclear just what lessons will be learned from these latest deaths.  Brandon Mosher is a Residence Assistant at Paul Smith’s, one of the students charged with enforcing alcohol policy on campus.  He said that parties like these are still common occurrences, not the sort of events that raise alarms.

 RM-It’s not a surprise when somebody says: two o’clock in the morning, we are going camping do you want to go?  You know.  It doesn’t surprise me at all. You know, usually you have a test in the morning or you are on duty, your like sorry guys, catch you next time.

 BM-According to Mosher, school administration, student RA’s did everything possible to keep students safe. 

 RM-It’s definitely not something that could have been prevented in any way.  You know we can have done any precautionary measure we wanted but in the end, you still go out and have a good time and accidents happen.  And this is nothing more than what this was, a huge accident.

 BM-But here again, not everyone agrees. 

 SO-I think the college can do more.

 BM-Susan Olsen was a substance abuse prevention specialist at Paul Smith’s from September 2006 through May of this year.  She says hard parting remains an accepted part of the school’s culture.

 SO-When I would go into residence halls or talk to students around campus, it was clear to me that there is quite a lot of alcohol available and being consumed. 

 BM-Olsen says there are few adult supervisors on campus after hours and because drinking is allowed in dorm rooms, she says enforcement is largely ineffectual.  Similar concerns have sparked a wider debate in the community.  Talk of the Town is a popular call in show at a Saranac Lake based radio station called WNBZ.

 WNBZ-  Under the circumstances I think what they should consider is maybe stepping up their security and have them patrol and they ought to pass a law maybe…….

 BM-In a turbulent interview with North Country Public Radio, Paul Smith’s president John Mills, said Paul Smith’s policies are now once again being reviewed.  The school is reexamining the policy that allows dorm room drinking.   Officials are also considering adding more after-hours supervision.  But Mills says there are no easy answers and simply banning alcohol on campus he says won’t work.    

 JM-Prohibition did not work in the United States and it doesn’t work on any college campus that I am aware of.

 BM-Mills also argues that the tragedies occurring on Lower St Regis Lake simply lie outside of the legal jurisdiction of his school. 

 JM-There’s a fundamental problem that no one will stand up to take a position on in this bloody place that we live in because no government official will take a stand.  That lake is not ours.  What right do I have to go out, talk to a private citizen and tell them to stop what you are doing. 

 BM-State Police are still investigating this spring’s fatal party.  And Franklin County’s District Attorney Derek Champagne says charges are still possible against those who provided alcohol to underage drinkers.  State Police Captain, John Tibbitts, says preventing more deaths will only happen when more people call the police to stop underage parties.

 JT-Pick up the phone and say hey listen you know, I think these kids are underage and they’re off drinking in the woods. We got to look more at the morality of the thing.  Look, I got to make a moral choice.  This can be my kid.  This could be my niece, this could be my nephew, this could be my next door neighbor’s son, this could be a kid from my little league team.

 BM-For North Country Public Radio, I’m Brian Mann.

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In loving Memory of Kristine Guest