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Cancer Hill still a thrill

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

It’s been named Cancer Hill for at least a decade. It’s a close off-campus spot where many Durango High School students – including Jason Pegel, 18, who just got out of class – go for a smoke. Pegel said he started smoking in the seventh grade with influences from friends and family.

By Shane Benjamin Herald staff writer

The social acceptability of cigarette smoking has diminished radically over the last several decades: People no longer smoke on airplanes, in the office or at restaurants.

At high schools, however, smoking in the boys’ bathroom may be a thing of the past, but another cultural phenomenon has proved stubbornly persistent: the smoking hole – a place just off school grounds where kids can light up in defiance of school administrators.

At Durango High School, that place is known as Cancer Hill, an unfortunate but fitting name.

“Cigarettes give you cancer, that’s why they call it Cancer Hill,” said Sarah Brodie, a freshman who has never tried smoking.

Cancer Hill is an area north of the football field and east of school grounds along the Animas River Trail. In general, the terrain is covered with weeds, rocks and shrubs. Worn patches of dirt mark spots where students stand idly puffing clouds into the air.

It has been called Cancer Hill since at least 2000, said Leonard Martinez, a school-resource officer with the Durango Police Department.

Large groups congregate there – before, during and after school – to smoke cigarettes, marijuana or just socialize, he said.

“Without having a closed campus, and if they’re either ditching school or they have a free period, they could end up there at any given time,” Martinez said.

This year, students began to spread out along the river trail, from Rank Park to a small neighborhood park on the east side of Demon Bridge, he said.

“They smoke cigarettes anywhere off school campus anymore,” Martinez said.

Such gatherings could become illegal next month if the Durango City Council passes a ban on smoking in public places, which could include parks and the river trail.

The city is proposing a $100 fine for the first offense and $200 to $300 for subsequent offenses during the same calendar year.

Martinez said he is actively informing students of the proposed law, and that students might need to give up smoking or find a new place.

“Right now, there is no law that says they can’t smoke,” he said.

A school administrator called police in September to report about 25 students possibly smoking marijuana on or near school grounds.

Police made at least two arrests.

Police were called again this week by someone who reported about 15 juveniles hanging out on a bridge blocking the river trail during the lunch hour near 22nd Street.

“Some may be smoking, some may not be, but they’re all in a large group, and it kind of frightens some of our older folks, and they call saying something is going on just to try to get the kids out of there,” Martinez said.

Julie Popp, spokeswoman for Durango School District 9-R, said all the district’s 11 school sites have a no smoking policy in place for all students and employees.

“Should the proposed smoking ban for the city of Durango go into effect, we will continue to support the city’s efforts to reinforce the smoking ban on all of our school campuses,” she said.

In Bayfield, the problem is less prevalent because the high school campus is closed. Still, a handful of students have been known to walk a short distance off school grounds toward a water tower to smoke, said Shelley Aveis, a school counselor. Students who do this, though, could face disciplinary action if they are caught.

“Sometimes at lunchtime, we will get a few kids who go up there,” Aveis said. “We don’t catch too many of them smoking, and it’s usually the same tiny group over and over.”

Studies show that most smokers get started before the age of 18. A study in 2005 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 23 percent of high school students smoked within a month, up slightly from the 22 percent who reported smoking in 2003.

The numbers are more encouraging in Colorado. A survey reported that 19 percent of high school students smoked cigarettes on one or more occasions in the last 30 days in 2005, compared with 16 percent in 2011.

Surveys also show a slight downward trend locally.

In 2000, 21 percent of 10th- and 12th-graders smoked compared with 20 percent in 2007. The numbers were significantly higher at Ignacio High School, where 36 percent of 10th- and 12th-graders reported smoking in 2000 compared with 43 percent in 2007. The survey did not include Bayfield High School in 2000, but a survey reported that 29 percent of 10th- and 12th-graders smoked during 2007.

Several students said they hang out on Cancer Hill, but they don’t necessarily smoke.

Michael Byam, a sophomore, said students call it “Cancer” for short. They might arrange to meet friends after school at Cancer.

Luke Hobbs, 17, who dropped out of Big Picture High School last year to obtain a GED diploma, was walking Thursday along the Animas River Trail near Cancer Hill with his friend, Briar Sorrendino, 16, who attends Big Picture High School.

They were sharing a cigarette.

Hobbs said he worries about the health effects of smoking, but he also enjoys the relaxing feeling he obtains from cigarettes.

He plans to quit before he turns 18, he said, because it will be easier to get cigarettes then, and it will become harder to quit.

“It’s definitely not a good thing to be doing,” he said. “You feel more alive when you don’t. You can breathe, your head is clear.”

Sorrendino said he goes to a picnic bench just off school grounds to smoke during the day. Smoking makes him feel relaxed.

“I guess when I figure myself out more, I’ll quit,” he said.

Both were aware of Cancer Hill, but neither hangs out there, partly because it’s not their school and partly because it has a negative connotation.

“Everyone knows what it is, but no one goes there just because it has a sketchy reputation,” Sorrendino said.


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