By the numbers
Steamboat drug arrests of youths 18 and younger
2008 to date: 33
Source: Steamboat Springs
Steamboat Springs Gary Burman's phone rang at 3 a.m. Oct. 8 with a chilling message. His 18-year-old son was in an ambulance, unresponsive, on his way to the hospital with a severe drug overdose.
In his son's body, doctors at Yampa Valley Medical Center found methadone, ecstasy, cocaine, Valium, Xanax, an anti-seizure medicine called clonazepam, marijuana and alcohol. For the next three days, Burman did not leave his comatose son's side in the intensive care unit.
Burman had known for some time that his son had been abusing drugs, but the scope and duration of the problem shocked him. His son, whom he asked not be named to respect his privacy, had started drinking in fourth grade. More serious drugs came in sixth grade and became a part of his son's lifestyle through graduation from Steamboat Springs High School.
Burman's son wasn't alone in drug and alcohol abuse at the high school, according to school Principal Kevin Taulman.
Taulman said drugs and alcohol are a concern at the school that the administration is taking steps to address, but quantifying the problem is difficult.
"Putting a number on it is so hard," he said. "I do think the amount of kids using at school and school functions is decreasing, but I don't know about the weekends."
School Resource Officer Josh Carrell said that when asked, students estimate 30 to 70 percent of their peers use drugs on a weekly basis. Carrell put his guess at about 35 percent.
"Either way, I think that's high for us as a school," he said. "We're not immune to that in our small town."
Capt. Joel Rae of the Steamboat Springs Police Department said the figures he has seen show about half of the students at the high school have experimented with illegal drugs at some point.
"I don't know if that's accurate or not, but it's probably in the ballpark," he said. "Obviously, that's a huge problem."
So far this year, 33 individuals ages 18 or younger have been arrested for drug charges. There were 33 arrests in 2007, 34 in 2006 and 25 in 2005.
Alcohol and marijuana are the most commonly abused substances, but others have been making their way into the schools.
"It's mainly marijuana, of course. Alcohol after that, a few bits of ecstasy here and there, but not much coke," sophomore Elliot Stahl said about drug use at the high school.
Stahl said he wasn't sure how prevalent the drugs were, but when asked whether he could buy drugs if he wanted to, he said it would not be hard.
"If you know the right people, it's probably pretty easy," he said.
There also is a growing trend of overdoses involving prescription drugs - such as Valium, Xanax and clonazepam - across the United States, according to a study recently published by Aron Hall, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
According to Hall, the number of unintentional overdoses increased dramatically in rural counties from 1999 to 2004.
"I think we see the same pressures going on around the nation right now with painkillers or prescription drugs," Carrell said.
High school counselor Shelby DeWolfe said she deals with students suffering the effects of drug abuse - either their own or someone near them - on a daily basis. She said the problem is widespread and that drug abuse "affects every kid at this school."
"Rarely a day goes by that I don't deal with a student dealing with a drug or alcohol issue," she said.
From dealing with students who actively are under the influence while at school to students who are trying to help their friends cope with drug abuse, DeWolfe said the problem is extensive.
"I think we really do have an issue at school, as well as a community overall," DeWolfe said. "I'm sure there are some days when we don't catch every kid who is under the influence."
Taulman said the school's first method for helping students is sending them to talk to DeWolfe, who previously worked at a youth drug abuse treatment center in Fort Collins and is a certified drug abuse counselor.
"Having someone certified in drug abuse on staff is huge," he said. "We try to work with her the best we can during the school day."
Outside of the school, however, there are few options for students or families dealing with drug abuse.
"In this community, there is a lack of treatment facilities for students suffering from drug addiction and abuse," she said. Most patients travel to the Front Range for treatment.
If a student is caught under the influence or in possession of drugs or alcohol, he or she faces a number of disciplinary measures. Taulman said pro-active measures by staff have decreased the number of students under the influence at school and school functions.
"We've had some success, unfortunately, catching kids," he said. "It's talking to every kid when they come to a dance, following up with any suspicions we have."
If a student is under the influence, he or she faces a mandatory five-day suspension, followed by an expulsion hearing with district administrators. Superintendent Shalee Cunningham makes the final decision about expulsions.
Cunningham said she agrees there is a drug abuse problem at the high school and Steamboat Springs Middle School. She said the no-tolerance polices in place are effective ways to deal with the issue, along with intervention and coordination with staff throughout the district.
"We have a philosophy that it takes a village to raise a child. These kids have teachers and coaches in their lives," she said. "It's a small town, it's a small school, and we try to keep our finger on the pulse of what's going on, and we do see students are using alcohol and drugs."
Other disciplinary measures are outlined in the high school's athletic code.
The code stipulates that any student caught with alcohol or drugs, including tobacco, will be suspended for 30 percent of the games in that sports season or the upcoming season. The student still can practice but is not allowed to travel to games or participate in them until 30 percent of the games have passed.
For a second offense, a student is banned from 100 percent of a season, which also can be carried forward to the next season. A third offense results in banishment from sports for one year, and a fourth removes the student from high school sports entirely.
If a student completes a treatment program, coaches and administrators can provide some leniency.
Athletic Director Richard Lee agreed that drugs pose a problem at the high school similar to many other high schools in the nation. He said it is not common for students to be put on probation from games because of drug or alcohol abuse, but it does happen every year.
Beyond the school punishments, students also can face legal penalties for possession and arriving at the school under the influence. That possibility reduces risk, Rae said.
"The No. 1 reason kids do not engage in illegal behavior or poor decision-making is the fear of those consequences, whether that is the fear of consequences from their parents, fear of consequences from their school or fear of the consequences from the judicial system," Rae said. "We have a zero-tolerance policy for drugs on school grounds."
Although every administrator and student interviewed for this article agreed there is a drug problem at the school, there was also a consensus that the problem is not as bad as previous years.
"The nice thing is that the school is at a point when they are recognizing and confronting the issue instead of denying it," DeWolfe said.
The same could be said about city officials.
The Steamboat Springs City Council is evaluating a "social host ordinance," for example, an effort sponsored by a group of parents, teachers and counselors called the Excellence Project. If approved, the law would use fines and community service to penalize parents and other adults who knowingly allow students to drink or do drugs in their home.
At the high school, Carrell works with a group of students to gain perspective on student issues. According to group member Jasper Gantic, a senior, some aspects of substance abuse are improving.
"It's not so much any more. It used to be half the school was hammered at dances," he said.
Junior Madison Struble said many students also choose not to do drugs because of athletic reasons.
"Sports are so important to this town that getting caught isn't worth it," she said.
The school has implemented several educational components to discourage drug use, as well. Last year, the school, in cooperation with local agencies, invited national anti-drug speaker John Underwood to talk with students about the negative impacts drugs have on the mind and body.
"Part of it is up to the teachers, and part is up to individuals," Gantic said.
"It depends on how willing you are to listen," Struble agreed.
A new life
Burman said his son is listening now. After spending a month in a drug treatment facility in Denver, he has moved back to Steamboat Springs and has changed his group of friends and his approach to life.
"That is kind of an ongoing thing now. We're still only a few weeks out of rehab, and, right now, he is interacting with me on a much healthier basis," Burman said. "He is taking a look at his own action and his own life daily in order to learn a new way of going about his life."
Burman's son had his 19th birthday last week, perhaps marking a new start.
"If you think about it, he has been, to some degree, using alcohol and drugs half his life," Burman said. "Even he doesn't know who he is, and he's going to have to go through a process of reinventing himself."