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Durango High School coach says he’s ‘saddened to the core’

Cross country team begins to heal after suspensions for drugs and alcohol use

Rumors and speculation have run rampant in the community since the Durango High School boys cross country team suspended seven students for alcohol and marijuana use during a trip to Arizona.

“Some of the rumors have been ridiculous,” said Julie Popp, spokeswoman for Durango School District 9-R. “People have been saying two students overdosed, when we had one student who was sick to his stomach.”

Another report was that the students smoking marijuana upset the hotel in Sedona, Arizona, where the incident took place. Julia Kyser of the Arabella Hotel Sedona said the hotel was worried about the student who got sick but was more concerned about getting an iPad left in one of the rooms back to its owner. The students were welcome back, she said.

The incident occurred Saturday night after students completed their runs at the Arizona Desert Twilight XC Festival in Phoenix and were staying at the hotel before returning home Sunday.

“On this trip, we had encounters with drugs, heavy-duty (tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects) products, alcohol and nicotine-delivering devices,” head coach David McMillan said in an email to parents of team members Sunday morning. “I know we have teenagers on our team; I know we all make mistakes; I know to err is human, to forgive, divine. Right now, I am feeling very human and not the slightest bit divine. I am saddened to the core.”

McMillan originally told team members and parents that practices and attendance at any meets were suspended indefinitely, which some took as a punishment for the entire team, not just those involved in the incident.

“The intent was not to punish the other team members,” 9-R Superintendent Dan Snowberger said. “It was mostly a personnel issue. Coach McMillan has some assistance, but he really is the coach, and he couldn’t run practices and the investigation at the same time. (The students) can certainly continue to condition and prepare for their next meet outside of sanctioned practices.”

On Tuesday evening, with the bulk of the investigation complete, it was decided the team would travel to Cortez for Saturday’s Ancient Trails 5K.

Because it’s a community team, students from charter, private and home schooling also participate. More than one source said Animas High School students were also involved in the incident, but the school could not be reached for comment.

It was the second suspension of members of a DHS athletic team for marijuana usage at away games since the school year started Aug. 24. Six members of the DHS junior varsity boys soccer team received the same three-day suspension, two days out of school, one day in school, as the cross country students received this week. That team was able to continue with business as usual because it had more staff and the investigation was more clear-cut, Snowberger said.

The soccer team episode came to light after someone, possibly a parent, made a report to Safe2Tell, Popp said.

“Those calls are handed off to an adult, who will definitely handle it as important and respect people’s anonymity,” she said. “We’ve found that if people are afraid about possible retribution, it’s often peer-to-peer.”

That’s something DHS Activities Director Dave Preszler said won’t be accepted.

“There’s to be no finger-pointing, that was one of the first points we made,” he said about the daily team meetings being held for the group to heal from the incident. “These are a lot of good kids, a lot of solid kids, who made really poor choices. We’re just asking each student to take responsibility for what they themselves did.”

While the case was referred to the Durango Police Department, Lt. Ray Shupe said he doubted there was much they could do about it because it occurred outside their jurisdiction.

“We prefer diversion rather than criminal courts when circumstances allow,” he said.

In the meantime, it’s the bigger picture people should be worried about, Snowberger said. Trickle-down economic theory may have been debunked, but society’s woes when it comes to substance abuse definitely trickle down into the schools.

“Focusing only on athletes when there are students of all walks of life who get sucked into this culture of substance abuse is unfortunate,” he said. “More disappointing is that there are elements of our community that condone it.”

The school district has had to take a number of measures to combat alcohol and drug abuse, he said, including a partnership with Celebrating Healthy Communities. It administers Breathalyzers at every school dance, and at last year’s prom, it found a group of students who had been at a pre-prom party where parents served alcohol. It has contracted with former Durango Police Department K9 handler Sam Petitto and his dog, Uto, to perform random drug searches at schools.

“Ironically, while the athletic department and Coach McMillen were conducting this investigation,” Snowberger said, “DHS Principal Leanne Garcia, safety officer Kathy Morris and (Assistant) Superintendent Victor Figueroa were meeting with (Durango Police Department) Chief Jim Spratlen and City Manager Ron LeBlanc to talk about problems in Rank Park. There is an increasing traffic of people, not DHS students, who are there trying to make contact with our students.”

Snowberger said that his first inclination, as it was for several people who called, was that the students should be kicked off the team.

“There definitely have to be consequences,” he said, “but if we only punish them, we’ve lost the ability to influence them toward healthier behaviors when they graduate.”

abutler@durangoherald.com

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