A perfect storm

Will the community and university do what’s needed to curb Chico’s destructive culture of binge drinking?

Party season is about to go into full bloom as red-cup revelers greet the sun at day-long parties in the student neighborhoods.

Party season is about to go into full bloom as red-cup revelers greet the sun at day-long parties in the student neighborhoods.

CN&R file photo

The intersection of Fifth and Ivy appeared pretty normal for a Saturday night at 1 a.m.: A young man stumbling toward his next destination, women wearing outfits defying the chill of late-January in Chico, cars full of 20-somethings carrying on conversations with people in the crosswalk. It was almost a caricature.

Something seemed out of place though—a Butte County Emergency Medical Services vehicle parked outside of Fifth & Ivy Liquor. It turns out the two paramedics inside camp out here sometimes in the wee hours to finish up paperwork and to keep an eye on things. Between 2 and 3 a.m. is their busy time. And they’ve seen it all. Students, visibly intoxicated, separated from their friends and walking alone. Fights. The drug dealers who descend on the area to prey on its drunken residents.

These days there’s a heightened sense of alert around here. Chico State student Mason Sumnicht had his final drinks at a bar on this very corner. For the university, it was the death of the 21-year-old—the last in a spate of alcohol-related deaths in late 2012—that sparked a community-wide discussion about what some already knew, and what many have been in denial about for years: Chico has a drinking problem.

The university—the lifeblood of the city—is just steps from this student neighborhood. It’s also steps from downtown, where drinks are cheap. Most of the students who attend Chico State come from hundreds of miles away and are living on their own for the first time. Some, like Sumnicht, join fraternities, which over the past decade have earned a reputation more for being drinking clubs than the community leaders they claim to be.

It adds up to a perfect storm. Some have even called it a public-health crisis. The bottom line is that young people are dying. And problems associated with binge drinking—sexual assault, property damage, violence—remain ever-present in Chico.

“The party-school reputation lingers,” said university President Paul Zingg. “Chico is a place where taverns and bars are plenty. Nobody’s going to be surprised that we’re addressing these issues—but we have to address this more effectively.”

As Chico State toils with the same issues it’s been dealing with for years, university officials are looking to the community and even other institutions for answers. And, as the CN&R found, among other schools tagged with similar reputations, some have adopted more-aggressive measures at drug and alcohol intervention than Chico State, and they are getting results.

But the first step, as they say, is admitting you have problem.

On a recent Wednesday night at Riley’s Bar & Grill a handful of mostly women were putting down shots in quick succession. As more women trickled in, the shots came even faster. It could have been any bar, or any night in Chico for that matter, save for the members of the Alpha Delta Pi sorority guest bartending.

One of the women at the bar, who spoke to the CN&R on the condition of anonymity, says the idea of personal responsibility has gotten lost in the discussion.

“Take ownership. Stop blaming bars and drink specials,” she said curtly, although she did agree that alcohol is much cheaper in Chico. In fact, all drinks were half off on this particular night. One man across the bar said he and a friend paid $10.50 for six Budweiser pints.

The young woman also mentioned something else that’s been repeated a lot in this community: “Chico is just like any other college town.”

Day of reckoning, again, for Chico State’s Greek community, as President Paul Zingg announced the suspension of all fraternities and sororities on Nov. 15, 2012, in the wake of the alcohol-overdose death of 21-year-old Chico State student Mason Sumnicht.


But that doesn’t hold true.

A scientific survey taken in early 2012 called the Healthy Minds Study—which examined mental-health issues of more than 25,000 students on 29 campuses across the country—shows that Chico State ranks higher than the average in all 13 categories relating to substance use, and much higher in cocaine, marijuana and prescription drug use (Chico has also seen several deaths from drug overdoses in recent years; some included alcohol). However, the most eye-opening statistic in the study shows that Chico State students “are almost double the national average when it comes to binge drinking more than three times in a two-week span.”

Boozing in Chico goes back generations. A study traced the relationship between alcohol and Pioneer Week (later Pioneer Days)—the long-running annual celebration of the area’s heritage—to before the Great Depression. Anthropologist Matthew Meyer says that throughout the event’s existence it “involved drunken debauchery and reckless neglect of safety, private property, and individual rights (not to mention school work).”

Things came to a head in January 1987 when Playboy named Chico State the No. 1 party school in the nation, a distinction that is far from scientific but also has been difficult to shake. The infamous Pioneer Days riots came just a few months later, which led then-university President Robin Wilson to cancel the event. The ’90s saw holidays like St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween and Labor Day turn increasingly unruly, and by 2002 law enforcement had all but put the kibosh on the notorious drinking events by ramping up police presence and DUI checkpoints. In recent years even the fairly innocuous César Chávez Day in Chico has to some become more a celebration of margarita specials than the human-rights activist.

That sounds familiar to Jackie Kurta, director of UC Santa Barbara’s Alcohol and Drug Program.

Santa Barbara has also gained notoriety as a party school. Isla Vista, the rowdy student community in Santa Barbara, is one square mile of apartments, bars and restaurants—similar to Chico’s downtown and student neighborhoods. There, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office foot patrols are employed.

Students who are found in violation of drug and alcohol offenses in the area are required to attend a five-week intervention session through UCSB’s College Alcohol and Substance Abuse program (CASE) at the student’s expense—$120 (it’s free to students who seek it out on their own). Through the program, which started in 2005, the university also notifies students’ parents on the first offense (in Chico parents are notified only when alcohol violations occur in student housing).

Kurta says it’s been effective, noting that the university doesn’t push for abstinence, but rather encourages safer behavior from those who choose to drink.

“Students are initially annoyed by it, or see it as an intrusion,” she said of CASE, “but they come away with a better understanding of the resources available to them.”

In addition, UCSB provides the Skills, Awareness and Motivation program, where students share their experiences with counselors and peers. There’s also mandatory peer counseling for freshmen, which Kurta says has proven more effective with students than online resources.

At the University at Albany, State University of New York, another school that has dealt with its own party-school reputation over the years, administrators implemented Project Healthy STEPS back in 2005.

“Students were suffering academically,” said Dr. M. Dolores Cimini, a licensed psychologist and assistant director for prevention and program evaluation at Albany. “We felt a duty to provide a safe environment for students, and for those who deal with the secondhand consequences—right down to the person who has to clean up the puke.”

The STEPS program has its roots in what Cimini calls a landmark report by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which examined the causes and effects of alcohol abuse and found which solutions work and which don’t. It focuses on high-risk groups, including Greeks and first-year students, and targets intervention counseling accordingly, going as far as interviewing them at chapter houses.

Michael Barrett, president of Phi Delta Theta fraternity and vice president of the Associated Students, stands in front of a wall of brainstormed ideas culled from a Feb. 22 Community Action Summit at Chico State.


Cimini says a decade ago her university was in a similar place as Chico State. It had made Princeton Review’s list of top party schools twice in five years. Around that time it also had a couple of alcohol-related deaths.

Chico State is in many ways in the same situation it was in 13 years ago, when Adrian Heideman, who was pledging the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity in October 2000, died after drinking large quantities of brandy. He would have turned 31 this July.

Since her son’s death more than a dozen years ago, Edie Heideman has spoken at several colleges on the dangers of hazing and binge drinking.

Zingg wasn’t at Chico State back then, but he was a year into his presidency in February 2005 when Matthew Carrington died. Carrington succumbed to water intoxication as part of a bizarre hazing tradition that required pledges to consume large amounts of water. While alcohol didn’t directly contribute to the 21-year-old’s death, the fraternity members orchestrating the rite had been drinking.

Most damaging, perhaps, was that the case made headlines around the nation. The shock reverberated throughout the community as a family was left to deal with the loss of a child. “You never expect anything to happen to your kid,” said Heideman, who has remained in contact with Carrington’s mother, Debbie Smith, since his death. “People have no idea what Debbie or myself are going through.”

After Carrington’s death Zingg lambasted members of the Greek community twice in as many months at on-campus gatherings, suspending them and calling for sweeping changes (including raising individual GPA requirements to its current 2.5).

He did so again just a few months ago, on Nov. 15—the day Sumnicht died—at an eerily similar gathering of the current crop of Greeks, suspending all chapters.

The final months of 2012 were not good ones for Chico. Four alcohol-related student deaths were reported between Aug. 19 and Nov. 15 (compared to six from 1996 to 2005). Sumnicht and one other student attended Chico State, another was about to start Butte College, and a 20-year-old Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo student visiting friends in Chico died on the river during the Labor Day float.

Sumnicht, a communication-design major from Jamul, Calif., was pledging Sigma Pi at the time of his death, although a Chico police investigation ruled out hazing. Sgt. Scott Franssen also says that despite earlier reports, there is no evidence supporting the idea that Sumnicht was trying to consume 21 shots for his 21st birthday. But police say the 6-foot, 140-pound senior did drink enough between the hours of 7:30 and 11:30 p.m. to send his blood-alcohol level beyond five times the legal limit.

Sumnicht was admitted to Enloe Medical Center later that night after he choked on his own vomit, which cut the flow of oxygen to his brain. He was removed from life support 12 days later. Investigations by police and the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control were unable to establish negligence on the part of those who were with Sumnicht that night, or Madison Bear Garden and Riley’s, where he reportedly was drinking. “It’s difficult to prove those cases unless an ABC officer is there,” said John Carr, a spokesman for the agency.

It was the last straw. As it turns out, 10 of Chico’s 26 Greek organizations were tied up in the university’s Student Judicial Affairs in 2012 for violating alcohol and hazing policies, in addition to allegations of assault. Some organizations simply went around the university’s zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policies for chapter houses by taking their parties elsewhere, to annexed houses where two or more Greek members resided.

The university doesn’t vigilantly enforce these policies—students are told to self-report any issues. This hasn’t always proven effective. But it’s not likely to change, either.

“We need to really trust them, and trust them to make the right decisions,” said Malcolm McLemore, a Greek Life coordinator at Chico State. “But the bottom line is that nothing usually comes across our desk until something goes wrong.”

Chico Mayor Mary Goloff and Chico State President Paul Zingg address the crowd during the Community Action Summit in February. Approximately 400 community members—including university officials, law enforcement, students, Greeks and bar owners—met to discuss possible solutions to the city’s drinking problem.


Nationally, Greeks are more likely to binge than the rest of the student population, according to the U.S. Department of Education. But many in the local Greek community feel they’ve been vilified. When asked to be interviewed for this story, several Greek members (even at the national level) refused to talk. Others answered only certain questions.

“If we’re saying we don’t have a problem, then there’s no solution,” said Phi Delta Theta President Michael Barrett. The 21-year-old philosophy major, and executive vice president of the Associated Students, has been very clear about being part of the Greek community’s transformation. “If you’re honest about it, you’ll come up with more meaningful solutions.”

For reinstatement all Greek organizations submitted self-evaluations approved by the university, in addition to completing a Safe Place Violence Prevention Education program. New guidelines are also in place for parties, and there are clear sanctions for violations. As it stands, all but two organizations are back in good standing with the university. Both Kappa Sigma and Phi Beta Sigma were found in violation of hazing, and their suspensions will carry through until at least the end of the school year.

While the highest-profile deaths have taken place in Chico’s Greek community, that population still makes up only about 6 percent of the student body.

It’s convenient to drink in Chico. For everyone. Downtown bars are a short walking distance from the student neighborhoods, as well as the university. Drink specials have hardly budged in almost two decades. The Oasis still runs its 25-cent kamikaze-shots special every Tuesday from 7 p.m. to midnight, in addition to domestic pitchers for $4. University Bar’s famous Buck Night—$1 wells and pints of Sierra Nevada—is a Wednesday-night institution. And a stiff 20-ounce tea at Panama’s will still run you just three bucks any night of the week.

This came to light at Chico State’s Community Action Summit on Feb. 22, which brought some 400 students and community members together to discuss possible solutions to the city’s drinking problem. Leading up to the summit, the Bear—which almost sits on campus—got rid of its longstanding Thursday Buck Night tradition.

Michael Wear—a partner in the ownership of four local eating and drinking establishments in Chico, including Riley’s and Franky’s Pizza, both located at Fifth and Ivy—attended the summit along with several other bar owners.

“I feel a little demonized,” Wear said at the summit, adding: “But I’m responsible for what I’m doing. We’ve always promoted a good time; it gets scary when you have to ask if it’s still a good time.”

One thing local bar owners agree on: Young people are drinking more hard alcohol than they used to. A lot more. Wear says that 20 years ago alcohol sales at his establishments were 60 percent beer; these days hard alcohol makes up about 80 percent of the sales.

One study brought up at the summit shows that a 10 percent increase in the cost of alcohol will reduce the risk of intoxication by 30 percent.

Wear’s not buying it.

“The culture of the individuals will find a way to get the cheapest drink wherever possible,” he later wrote by email. “And by pricing up the bars, we will be promoting more house parties, unregulated drinking and potentially more situations in the streets.”

It’s not just the allure of drink specials—a lot of boozing happens outside of Chico’s bar scene. A recent walk through an outlying student neighborhood was pretty typical: A beer-pong table (otherwise known as a ping-pong table) made up the centerpiece of a living room at one house party. Just two doors down a group of 20-somethings sat around a kitchen cluttered with bottles of liquor and shot glasses.

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And there are indications that many students are coming to Chico State solely for its party-school reputation. More than 30 percent of Chico’s incoming freshmen report having binged in the past two weeks, compared to 22 percent nationally, according to Chico State officials. And, as with the bars, many underage drinkers are bypassing the gradual buzz of beer for the quick blast of liquor. A 1.75-liter bottle of Burnett’s Vodka—known as “Chico Water” around these parts—goes for as little as $5.18 at WinCo. One bottle will get you about 35 shots, and the brand includes easy-drinking flavors like Pineapple, Mango and Fruit Punch.

Weekends, and especially holidays, are busy for local law enforcement and the emergency room. Enloe receives on average two to four alcohol-overdose patients on Fridays and Saturdays throughout the school year. The ages of those patients range from 17 to 22. On holidays like Halloween and Memorial Day, the number of student ER visits increases tenfold. And Chico Police Department Det. Abigail Madden says if you take alcohol out of the equation, calls for service would decrease significantly for the department.

Chico’s reputation is something students still have to deal with. Ask any graduate. Or in the case of Chico State senior Ian Gilbert—who’s also president of the recently reinstated Sigma Pi fraternity that Mason Sumnicht was pledging—the school’s reputation lingered before he even stepped foot on campus in 2010.

“I had heard plenty about Chico State’s party reputation. Every adult I told about Chico immediately looked at me funny,” Gilbert said. “But that didn’t really bother me. I came with a group of friends and fell in love with the campus. That’s what mattered.”

Three Chico State presidents—going back more than three decades—have had to deal with, and act on, the effects of binge drinking in the campus community. Some of it was as simple as pulling alcohol ads from Chico State’s student newspaper, The Orion, or banning alcohol promotions and sponsorship for university and Greek events. Years later the university purposely scheduled its spring break to coincide with St. Patrick’s Day, effectively clamping down on that popular drinking holiday.

There are resources available to students on campus. Chico State’s Campus Alcohol and Drug Education Program (CADEC) was created in 1988 in response to the Pioneer Days riots, although it takes a more passive approach. Aside from the online Alcohol-EDU courses—which became mandatory in 2005 for all incoming freshmen—alcohol-and-drug counseling is voluntary.

Students found in violation of minor alcohol offenses downtown are reported to the university’s Student Judicial Affairs office and, as Zingg points out, are “watched more carefully.” Parents are not notified.

Those measures clearly haven’t been enough. The February Community Action Summit yielded more ideas. On March 12, the university examined those further, and says it plans to implement some of them in the coming weeks.

One program mentioned at the summit was the University at Albany’s Project Healthy STEPS.

Cimini, the director for prevention and program evaluation and also a national expert on high-risk drinking and drug-abuse prevention for college students, says the program works. Albany has seen significant reduction in binge drinking among students over the past eight years, in addition to improved grades and fewer cases of vandalism, fighting and sexual assault.

“The students like it because it’s really non-confrontational,” Cimini said, adding that the program provides valuable personal feedback to students. “They even recommend it to their friends.”

As with UC Santa Barbara and Albany, Chico State officials have made it clear they don’t want to take the college experience from students. Young people are going to drink. The goal is to curb it to responsible levels.

“It comes down ultimately to personal responsibility,” said Zingg. “As an individual, are you going to do the right thing when you find a friend or yourself impaired?”

But the university has to do more. The community is optimistic—cautiously optimistic, depending on whom you ask. For Chico State, it sees this as a chance to make a different name for itself—as part of the solution instead of the problem.

“We’re helping people grow up, quite frankly,” Zingg said. “It goes deeper than education.”