Project Graduation saves lives


If you are interested in volunteering or donating, contact Paul Carlson at 970-618-9593.

It’s no secret that big high school events like prom and graduation often go hand in hand with underage drinking and use of drugs other than alcohol — sometimes with tragic consequences.

“Every year you kind of hold your breath around those events and hope that you don’t see a loss or a severe injury to a young person who’s just getting ready to go out into the world,” said Glenwood Police Chief Terry Wilson.“When I first started here, it was almost traditional that folks around here pretty much anticipated at least one death surrounding the prom and graduation season.”

Sometimes it was an overdose or an injury, but most often it was drunken driving.

“Sober teenagers drive bad. Drunk teenagers are really a scary proposition,” Wilson said.

In recent years, several programs have sprung up to try to prevent such tragedies.

Several schools put on after-prom events to discourage students from having their own parties.

“The ultimate goal is to provide a fun, free alternative to doing something unsafe,” said Julie Martinez, president of the Coal Ridge Booster Club. “Hopefully we tire them out enough that they just go home.”

Project Graduation began in Glenwood Springs 28 years ago and has since spread to Carbondale and Basalt.

It generally attracts the majority of the graduating class with games, entertainment and prizes. The festivities begin at 9 p.m. — giving students a chance to celebrate with their family after graduation itself — and last until 3 a.m.

“My goal was one last, safe night as a class together,” said organizer Paul Carlson.

Carlson has been involved with the event since the beginning, and each year he coordinates the fundraising effort for the $10,000 or more needed. Lately, he’s been looking for someone to take up the cause.

“I think, especially with a new grandchild in the picture, it’s probably time to set it free,” he said. “I’ll always be around to help.

“If we save one life, it’s worth doing,” he added.

Wilson is pretty sure it has.

“We see a great turnout for those events now, and I’m 110 percent convinced that they’ve saved lives,” he said.

Law enforcement does its part with educational programs and extra enforcement on key weekends.

“We have at least one officer present at the events,” Wilson said. “We stay well aware of what’s going on. The simple fact is, it’s a small town. It’s really difficult to be that sneaky. To them it’s new, to the rest of us it’s kind of an annual recurring event.”

According to Wilson, no minor in possession charges were issued on Glenwood’s prom night this year. The same was true in Rifle, although a large party the weekend before ended in 18 citations.

“I always urge parents if they’re going to be away to have someone check on their kids,” said Rifle Police Chief John Dyer. “A lot of these parties start small and then get out of hand.”

Dyer noted that while parents are legally allowed to serve small amounts of alcohol to their own children in their own home, providing it to others crosses a line.

“I hope that parents are having events at their house that are appropriate,” he said.

In Carbondale, seven MIP citations were issued at prom itself.

As Roaring Fork High School Principal Drew Adams observed, it’s the kind of situation that can happen anywhere in the county, and has.

“This is a communitywide challenge that we need to address,” he said.

Coal Ridge High Principal Rick Elertson had similar sentiments after several students were caught with marijuana at school.

“The unfortunate incident … involving the sale and consumption of edible marijuana by students from CRHS is in no way emblematic of our school,” he wrote in a statement. “However, we acknowledge that we are not immune to these kinds of poor choices by students, as no schools seem to be.”

The citations at Carbondale’s prom included both alcohol and marijuana.

“As a law, and as a disciplinary response, it’s the same,” Adams said.

They present different challenges, however.

According to Adams, marijuana use seems to be more common during the school day itself, while alcohol is generally only an issue at after hours events.

That may be because students believe it’s easier to get away with smoking pot.

“Some people are better able to mask when they’re under the influence of marijuana versus alcohol,” Adams said. “There are different sources of pot, like vape pens and edibles, that are harder to trace.”

There’s also the matter of potentially different concerns for each substance.

“The number one concern when a student is caught under the influence of alcohol is whether they were driving,” Adams said. With pot, it’s still a concern, but it’s not my first concern. The detrimental effects of pot on the developmental stages of adolescence are much more significant.”

He acknowledged that marijuana consumption among teens isn’t new, but noted that cannabis is both more potent and more available in the recreational era.

“The difference I see isn’t that there’s a significant increase in the percentage of students smoking, it’s that those that are using are getting a much bigger high, and that has a bigger effect on their development,” he said.

Legalization can also lead to the sense that it’s not a big deal — a problem that also comes up with alcohol.

“Some are very flippant about it, and others show quite a bit of remorse,” Adams said.

The best response to that, according to Wilson, is education.

“Awareness is our best weapon,” he said. “Law enforcement is kind of the last line, but other sources have more of a preventative quality than we can provide. It still comes down to kids having the support and the background that helps them make positive choices.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.