'Everyone drinks a lot'

College drinking a rising problem in Steamboat Springs

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A group of students eating lunch at Colorado Mountain College on Saturday said they could count on one hand the nondrinkers among the more than 200 students who live in their dormitories.

They guessed that 90 percent of their peers drink alcohol. Another group estimated 85 percent of college students drink and said many drink every night.

"There is a lot of drinking in this town. Not only college students. It is high school kids and those who don't go to school. Everyone drinks a lot," second-year student Ned Scheve said.

The recent, highly publicized, alcohol-related deaths of college students at Colorado State University and the University of Colorado have not affected their drinking habits, the students said. At the same time, they do not think the drinking culture at CMC is a problem.

"It is the same way at every single

college," CMC student Ed Jewell said. "There is nothing else to do in a small town, so it is easier to notice."

A growing problem

The Steamboat Springs Police Department and the Routt County Sheriff's Office have noticed.

Both agencies report calls involving college-age drinking have increased dramatically this school year.

"We have had more incidents this year than in the five years that I worked here," police Sgt. Nick Bosick said. "It seems like these kids are out of control."

Bosick, who works at night, said he has been sent to seven or eight ambulance calls for overly intoxicated CMC students this semester. One of his patrol officers said that in the past month, he has arrested 15 CMC students on suspicion of drunken driving.

One 19-year-old student was fortunate to have survived swerving across a road and slamming head on into a bulldozer parked on the far shoulder. He had been drinking that night and was heading back to campus from a party, Bosick said.

Bosick also pointed to an incident in which a fight that started at a CMC party held in rural Routt County escalated into a knife fight at West Lincoln Park. One student was taken to the hospital.

In another incident, an intoxicated woman was taken to the hospital, and one of her friends was arrested after allegedly driving drunk to the hospital to visit her.

"I feel like it is really, really out of hand," Bosick said.

Routt County Sheriff John Warner said his department has seen an increase in alcohol-related incidents, mostly involving college parties held in remote areas.

"It is a concern to me, especially on the heels of the CU and CSU deaths," Warner said.

Class by class

CMC Assistant Campus Dean of Student Services Brian Hoza said it is not unusual for the college to have problems with students drinking. CMC is experiencing the same kind of issues that schools across the country are, he said.

The number of incidents tend to come in waves and are linked to the collective thinking of a particular graduating class, he said.

This year, Hoza said there have been times that if a friend hadn't called for help, if a staff member hadn't intervened or if a police officer had not been on scene, there could have been some "very serious, possibly fatal situations."

"This appears to be a year with a lot of opportunities for students to realize the seriousness (of drinking) from the things they read in the paper and what is going on in other places. But, it doesn't appear to be a group that has necessarily allowed that to have too much of an impact on their behavior," Hoza said.

Awareness of college drinking is increasing, he said.

"I think it is becoming more public; it supports the popular myth and expectations," Hoza said. "It also creates a difficult situation for students that don't party. Even though there are a significant number of students who don't, they can begin to feel like outsiders in the college climate. They are under a lot of pressure."

The student perspective

Students at CMC point to a number of reasons why drinking is so popular in college. One is a lack of things to do when the sun goes down. When students are too young to get into bars, house parties are the social activity of choice.

Hoza said law officers said there has been an increase in off-campus parties, and the parties are larger and happen more frequently. Of the CMC's 650 traditional degree-seeking students, about two-thirds live off campus, outside the school's ability to set and enforce drinking rules.

With parties off campus and sometimes miles away -- deputies have broken up several parties high on Buffalo Pass this fall -- getting to them can be difficult and can encourage drinking and driving.

Students said that because their out-of-state license plates and CMC stickers easily identify them as students, police are profiling their cars and they are more likely to get pulled over.

They also said the law enforcement agencies here are not as willing to turn a blind eye to underage drinking as those in bigger college towns.

One student said the problem is not with underage drinking, but with those students who do not know what their limits are. It's not a problem to go out and drink every night, but it is a problem when someone takes 10 more shots than they should, she said.

The students who come to CMC do so with the intentions to learn, to snowboard and also to drink, police Capt. Joel Rae said.

"It is difficult. I don't know how to change that mentality. We'll keep working at it," he said.

What works, what doesn't

Although the drinking deaths making headlines statewide might not be on the minds of CMC students, they certainly are on the minds of college administrators and law enforcement officials.

"We have been fortunate it hasn't happened here. If it continues, it is only a matter of time," Rae said.

The college has programs set up to allow students to talk about alcohol, its dangers and what to do in serious situations. The college, which is a dry campus, also promotes activities and events that present other options.

On campus, anyone caught drinking the first time is put on probation and required to take alcohol classes and do community service. A second violation means a suspension from the residence hall, with no refund for room and board or the deposit returned.

Although the school has punishments in place for drinking on campus, it has little control over what happens off campus. Instead, it is the sheriff's office and police department that crack down on house parties.

"We are getting, I wouldn't say overwhelmed, but we have too many other things to be worrying about than to continue to deal with drunk college kids. Our attention is pulled away from other important things. It is an ongoing hardship," Bosick said.

The sheriff's office and police department are working with the college. The police notify the college of all incidents they handle that involve CMC students and drinking.

The sheriff's office and police department have a no-tolerance policy, meaning if a minor is caught with possession of alcohol, a ticket will be given.

One of the most effective ways in disciplining those caught underage drinking or dangerously drunk is to notify the parents. College-age students appear to be more concerned about letting other people down, including mom and dad, than about the danger they put themselves in, Hoza said.

"One of the few things that appears to matter to them is if their parents are informed," Hoza said. "The impact is pretty dramatic."

Proactive steps

Bosick questioned where the students, the vast majority of whom are not 21, are getting the alcohol. He said underage students are able to get access to kegs and get into bars.

The police department needs to start talking to liquor store owners and employees about trying to be better at recognizing when alcohol is being bought for underage drinkers, Bosick said.

With the police department finally coming up to full-staff levels, Bosick hopes that will allow more opportunities for patrol officers to go into bars and check for underage drinkers.

"We are starting to be more proactive in the last few weeks," he said.

Another way the community could help, Hoza said, involves landlords and property management companies where the students live. Often, condominium association laws about noise and visitors can be more restrictive than what the college has in place, he said. And a greater emphasis is being placed on educating those who host the party about the liabilities that can occur.

Rae said the police department uses programs geared toward high school students, such as Sober Prom and Alive at 25, hoping the lessons they learn will carry into their college years.

"It's more of a continual education process that needs to take place, and good parenting," he said.

But law enforcement officials and school administrators have no control over what CMC students say will most cut down on their drinking habits.

"As a general group, CMC students are here to ride the mountain," Scheve said. "Once it snows, the drinking is going to go down."

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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