Call for action

Community forum considers Chico’s substance-abuse problems

Chico State President Paul Zingg, right, addresses students at a meeting on substance abuse held Feb. 22 on the Chico State campus.

Chico State President Paul Zingg, right, addresses students at a meeting on substance abuse held Feb. 22 on the Chico State campus.

Photo By Mark Lore

Some of the toughest talk aimed at the Greek system during last week’s Community Action Summit didn’t come from Chico State President Paul Zingg (although he did have a few choice words) but instead from a member of a fraternity.

During one of the 56 breakout sessions centered on different aspects of Chico’s party culture, Michael Barrett, visibly nervous, called on the carpet a group of about 25 fraternity and sorority members, most of whom wore sweatshirts and hats with their organizations’ letters.

“If the money you raise is more important than community safety, then there’s a problem,” the 21-year-old president of Phi Delta Theta said tersely, responding to the handful of Greek members touting their philanthropy.

Friday’s gathering was about more than the Greek community, however. And it was about more than just alcohol—illegal- and prescription-drug use is also a concern in Chico. But it was the death of 21-year-old Chico State student and Sigma Pi pledge Mason Sumnicht from an alcohol overdose back in November that was the main driver behind the community leaders’ call for a citywide discussion on what do about Chico’s party culture.

Some 400 community members—including university officials, law enforcement, and bar owners—pre-registered for the six-hour meeting. Only 150 of that total were students, half of whom belonged to Greek organizations. The topics for the breakout sessions, chosen and written on pieces of paper by attendees, included concerns about the use of fake IDs, women’s safety, personal responsibility among students, and even the media’s role in reporting information. And although there are still no concrete plans of action, some in attendance were content with getting a conversation started.

Larry Bassow, a student conduct coordinator with the university’s Student Judicial Affairs office, said turning discussion into action won’t be easy. But he’s hopeful. “For the first time we’re able to admit the problem,” said Bassow, who served as a Greek Life adviser for seven years. “Now we can change.”

The general consensus seemed to be that, no matter what sort of good Greeks might do for the community, and despite the features that make Chico an inviting destination for many, it doesn’t mean anything when young people are dying from substance abuse. Five died last year over the course of a few months, and statistics reported at the event show that yes, in fact, Chico does have a problem.

Before any discussion took place, community leaders, including Zingg and Mayor Mary Goloff, spoke to that matter. Goloff ran through her own list of what made her fall in love with Chico, while underscoring the town’s checkered past. So did Zingg, who became president almost a decade ago, inheriting the university’s already notorious party-school reputation in addition to having to deal with a couple of high-profile deaths on his watch. Back in November, Zingg scolded an auditorium full of Greeks for the second time in seven years, and ultimately suspended them (they’re currently in the process of regaining university recognition). This time around, he made it clear that action must be taken.

“We’re not here to wring our hands in frustration, or to wag fingers,” he said to a silent room. “We are here to connect, to communicate and to commit.”

Zingg’s not alone. Local bar owners have also received attention lately for drink prices that many agree have hardly budged in almost two decades. Michael Wear is a partner in the ownership of four drinking and eating establishments in Chico, including Riley’s Bar & Grill and Franky’s, which are both located at the infamous Fifth and Ivy intersection. He sat with a small group of local bar owners during one session.

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

Wear said during the discussion that he’s open to the idea of dropping specials like Power Hour (which includes 50-cent well drinks), but that he’s unwilling to make any changes just yet.

Time will tell. When Zingg gave his closing remarks at the end of the day, less than half of the initial participants were still in attendance. Zingg said all of the ideas presented throughout the day would be taken up by a dozen or so groups who would then propose plans of action, possibly by the end of this week.

The majority of the people the CN&R spoke with at the summit admitted that changing the culture will be a challenge. That became even more evident the following night after the Chico Police Department reported making a number of arrests in the student neighborhood for DUI, assault and public intoxication.

The irony isn’t lost on Barrett, the fraternity member who lambasted his peers at Friday’s summit. Barrett, who is executive vice president of the Associated Students, witnessed police officers and firefighters responding to a call at a neighbor’s house Saturday night.

“It’s kind of sad to see that,” Barrett said. “I don’t think there’s a correlation. With 400 people coming out, there’s obviously a willingness to talk. But after what happened Saturday, it’s a sign that there’s a long way to go.”