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Father's seeks alcohol awareness through Paul Smith's legal action

Staff Writer

June 2007

PAUL SMITHS -- Lessons can be learned the hard way.
But legal action pending against Paul Smith's College is meant to underscore a message Stephen Guest hoped others would have learned from his daughter Kristine's untimely death two years ago.
The 20-year-old Quinnipiac University junior was visiting the Adirondack campus with a friend when she was killed riding on back of a snowmobile across the frozen Lower St. Regis Lake.
Paul Smith's College student Joshua Rau, 20, also died when the sled he drove crashed into Peter's Rock on Feb. 6, 2005.
Toxicology reports showed Rau's blood-alcohol level was 0.14.
Kristine's blood-alcohol level was negligible.
"There were 50 to 100 students and 10 or 12 snowmobiles out there that night," Guest said in a telephone interview.
"But what gets me about the situation -- there were snowmobiles and no helmets -- and then you have snowmobiles riding on ice without helmets."
Guest filed a lawsuit against the school 14 months ago, hoping to elicit some action from college authorities before it was too late.
But he heard an ominous reverberation with news of the May 4 drowning of two Paul Smith's students.
Sean Cornell, 20, and Lee Walker, 18, had paddled in the darkness across the Lower St. Regis to Peter's Rock, where other students were partying after the last day of classes.
The canoe the two were in capsized in 40-degree water, and both young men drowned.
They were not wearing life jackets. And both men had blood-alcohol levels above the legal limit for driving.
"When you look at the parallels between the two (incidents), it's uncanny," Guest said. "I was trying to do my best to prevent this from happening. People still don't get it."
What people don't get and what the college hasn't addressed, he said, is the lack of supervision and attention to alcohol misuse and abuse on campus.
"To me, the school's action that night (of Kristine's death) was outrageous. The director of residence life told the safety officer not to do anything (about the party) because she was afraid of a riot. It tells me that's a situation out of control.
"And all this happened one week after a Paul Smith's student was killed driving while intoxicated."
Stephen Welch, 19, died in January 2005 when his vehicle went off the road.
Digging into legal precedent, Guest found a federal law mandating college supervision of alcohol and drug use. The Drug-free Schools and Community Act has been on the books since 1989.
"There have been no sanctions under the law in 17 years."
Through Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, Guest was able to seek counsel with the U.S. Department of Education, which contacted him last March.
Guest urged them to conduct the mandatory biannual review of the Paul Smith's College alcohol and drug policy.
"They said there would be a first on-site review in April '07, in the third week of April, but the visit was delayed because of (the killings at) Virginia Tech," Guest said.
Department of Education representatives visited the Paul Smith's campus on May 14, he said, but it was too late.
"If the U.S. Department of Education had been there in April, as scheduled, would it have made a difference to the two boys who drowned?" Guest asked rhetorically.
"Had the U.S. Department of Education enforced this act, would the overall atmosphere on any of our campuses be any different?"
Colleges found in violation of Drug-free Schools and Community Act can lose federal funding, including student assistance grants.
"They can also issue sanctions less than removing federal funding," Guest said.
Faced with expressing loss beyond words, Guest looked for some kind of redemption.
"Where have we been the last two years and what does it mean to these five lives? I'm not here to overly disparage Paul Smith's College, but I have to hold them accountable. They did not learn their lesson. My motivation is definitely to seek some kind of justice for Kristine."

Paul Smith's College spokesman Ken Aaron said Thursday that the college enacted a stricter drug and alcohol prevention policy after the fatal accidents in 2005.
"A task force assembled to look at the problem, and policies about drugs and alcohol were pro-actively presented to students at orientation. We also established a social-norms campaign to discourage alcohol use."
But in recent days, the college has taken a hard look at property lines, including easements to Peter's Rock, the party spot with a student-built lean-to and fire pit.
The property, though owned by Paul Smith's, has an easement for public use by the Department of Environmental Conservation, Aaron said.
Nearly two-thirds of all college lands have public easements, which gives the college little control over what happens on them, he said.
"College President John Mills spoke with the district attorney in Franklin County, and they decided to go together to request that DEC ban alcohol on Paul Smith's College easement lands," Aaron said.
"We're not certain if it is a practicable solution, but it is a start."
Aaron was not aware of any visit by U.S. Department of Education officials.
But he says the college is not ignoring tragedy.
"Are we responding to what happened? Absolutely. Colleges everywhere try in many ways to control substance abuse, but nobody's come up with a solution."

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In loving Memory of Kristine Guest