Hello My Name Is: Chico (And I Have A Drinking Problem)

We all have a role to play in engaging University students, bringing them into the community, and offering constructive channels for their youthful energy as an alternative to constant partying. This will not only help moderate dangerous levels of alcohol consumption, but can also serve the long term interests of students and the community at […]

Mason Sumnicht, a pledge to Sigma Pi at Chico State, died on November 15th after a night of heavy drinking at local bars. He was celebrating his 21st birthday by drinking 21 shots with the help of his fraternity brothers. His life ended with severe brain damage and 12 days of life support in the hospital. The tragedy of the loss of a young man with his whole life ahead of him cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, such a tragic event is not as uncommon in Chico as it should be. This was the fourth alcohol-related student death in the fall semester — Shawn Summa, Brett Olson, and Carly Callaghan all lost their lives in the last four months.

These are just a few of the highest profile cases in recent months, but the list goes on and on — drunk driving, hazings, sexual assaults, rapes, drownings, alcohol poisonings, stabbings — crimes related directly to the high rate of alcohol consumption by students and the community at large.

Chico has long cultivated a party culture, and if you look at our history, we go through cycles of increasingly uncontrolled behavior followed by public outcry and attempts to moderate it. There’s Pioneer Days, an annual week-long alcohol-fueled bacchanalia where anything that could happen, did. Playboy dubbed Chico State America’s #1 party school in 1987, and that year the parties led to full-on riots, complete with street fires and overturned cars. The President of the school at the time, Robin Wilson, met with local officials, who agreed to shut down the event with police force, famously saying that he “took it out back and shot it in the head.” Then there’s the 2008 riots, when Chico Police attempted to break up a party at 6th & Cherry, and students retaliated and rioted downtown. Then there’s Halloween, which used to draw tens of thousands of people from all over the state for a massive street party, which then devolved into increasingly violent behavior until the festivities in 2001 saw four stabbings, 36 assaults (two sexual), two dozen car accidents, and various acts of vandalism. This was followed by a crackdown the following year composed of 400 officers from across the North State, many on horseback, phalanxes of police walking the streets in groups of six to ten, DUI checkpoints, helicopters, and in later years advertisements run statewide featuring cops rounding up revelers and menacing voices saying, “The party is over”.mounted police

Why the history lesson? This writer believes we are about to experience another crackdown. It’s not a very bold prediction. The President of the University, Paul Zingg, has already suspended the fraternities and sororities on campus, refusing to reinstate their charter until they agree to some yet-to-be-determined restrictions. In addition, he and other community leaders have published a call to action asking for everyone to work together to moderate alcohol consumption in Chico.

This is clearly a multifaceted issue that does not lend itself to a simple analysis or a single point of blame. Part of the issue, clearly, is that some students come to Chico State specifically because they want to party. It still has a reputation as a party school, despite the restrictions put in place since the ‘80s. Surveys show that 35% of incoming freshmen report participating in binge drinking during their senior year of high school, significantly higher than the national average of 22%. Once here, students report feeling pressure to drink heavily, and the culture created on campus, and to some extent throughout the community, certainly contributes to that.


It shouldn’t be surprising that students predisposed to heavy drinking, immersed in a party culture, in a town where cheap alcohol is everywhere, will get themselves into trouble. The question is: what responsibility, if any, do the institutions and businesses we set up — the University, the City, downtown bars and clubs, and the community as a whole — have in helping students avoid truly dangerous situations, whether it be alcohol poisoning, hazing, or sexual assaults? Does it actually help to set up new rules and regulations, or will lasting change only come with a shift in culture?

I’ve spoken with a dozen or so individuals, everyone from long-time residents, to students, to downtown bar owners, and I’m an ideas guy, so please allow me to synthesize these discussions into a few ideas. Hopefully this will stimulate further discussion and community resolve around achievable change.


You must renew your commitment to brotherhood. Pressuring a brother to drink dangerous volumes of alcohol is a betrayal, as is providing alcohol to a brother once he has exceeded his body’s tolerance. Nobody wants to kill your party, but certainly a good time can be had by all without anyone dying. Take the time to learn the very real limitations of the human body and to detect dangerous levels of intoxication. You have a moral obligation, and if you don’t meet your responsibility, your charter will be revoked.

The University

Your primary role is one of education. Require a comprehensive health and safety course for all new students (freshmen and transfers) surrounding issues of excessive alcohol consumption, interactions between prescription pills and alcohol, and sexual assault prevention. Ensure that it’s interesting and fun so students actually want to attend and pay attention. Invite community members, bartenders, and former students who have dealt with the consequences of alcohol abuse to present their perspectives.

Increase your academic standards. Eliminate curved grading. Hold more classes on Friday afternoons and Monday mornings. You are an academic institution that needs to take academics more seriously.

Erect a memorial in a prominent location to all those we’ve lost to drug and alcohol abuse. There is very little institutional memory among the student population. The high turnover rate means that new students don’t necessarily appreciate how dangerous excessive alcohol consumption can be. This constant reminder/buzzkill will help to counterbalance the pull of the drinking culture.

You should bring local bar owners into the discussion. Notably missing from your call to action are the names of any local bar owners. I met with five who said they were never contacted or consulted prior to its publication, but would have welcomed the opportunity to participate in the discussion. I think you’ll find some unlikely allies if you approach the issue in a balanced way.


The fact that 35% of incoming freshmen are already binge drinkers points to a glaring lack of parental guidance in the lives of these young people prior to their arrival. Parents must take an active role in discussing the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption. We clearly need to get the message across a lot sooner than we have been. Rather than burying your head in the sand and hiding behind blanket prohibitions, we need to realize that kids are getting into stuff earlier and earlier. Here in Chico, parties with alcohol are happening as early as middle school. Parents clearly have a huge role to play in monitoring their kids and talking about alcohol early and often, right alongside discussions of drug use (including prescription pills) and safe sex.

Bar Owners

You have a moral and legal obligation to bounce underage kids and to look all of your customers in the eye and cut them off if they’ve reached their limit. If you provide alcohol to someone that is clearly wasted, you have crossed the line from service provider to predator. The vast majority of Chico’s bar owners recognize this, and operate honest, legal businesses and take their responsibility seriously. However, some are playing fast and loose with their licenses — Riley’s served ten shots in 75 minutes to Mason Sumnicht the night he was hospitalized. Clearly, they fell short of their responsibility to cut off overly intoxicated customers that night.

You are not simply a small business meeting the demands of the market. Yours is a special case, where your customer’s demand may or may not be genuine. The first few might be, but as someone gets progressively hammered, their judgement has been compromised and you have an obligation to moderate their otherwise dangerous behavior. You are also in some cases dealing with a complicated group dynamic that is encouraging excessive consumption. Your role is to know when to serve and when to stop serving. It’s probably best to serve smaller quantities so you can keep an eye on things — serving pitchers of vodka is not going to give you the level of granularity you need.

The City

Passing new laws or regulations is unlikely to have any effect. You don’t have the staff to enforce them! It is entirely likely that your attempt to further regulate alcohol consumption will have unintended side effects. One might argue that shutting down Pioneer Days, Halloween, and St. Patrick’s Day and forcing downtown bars out of business has simply pushed the problem elsewhere — to house parties that are completely impossible to regulate. We have plenty of laws already — your challenge is to find the resources to enforce them.

Community Members

We all have a role to play in engaging University students, bringing them into the community, and offering constructive channels for their youthful energy as an alternative to constant partying. This will not only help moderate dangerous levels of alcohol consumption, but can also serve the long term interests of students and the community at large. Let me explain.

The economy is in pretty sore shape. We all recognize the need to revitalize and grow local business. We have a student population that for the most part comes here from other areas, parties hard, and leaves in four years, with very little long-term benefit accruing to the community. We ought to be able to pick the best and brightest among them and recruit them to stay here, start businesses, and help our community prosper. We can do this by creating an incubator for startups composed of the most talented and driven students, supplemented by experienced entrepreneurs from the community. For example, if we want to grow the web/mobile software sector in Chico, we incubate companies composed of Computer Science, Communication Design and Business students, with mentorship, support, or possibly leadership from those in the community with relevant industry experience. This would not only give students valuable experience starting a company while in college, but hopefully would help them establish long-term roots in Chico and grow our local economy.

These are just a few ideas. We at the Synthesis hope to engage the community in depth on this issue over the course of the next few months, and facilitate an ongoing conversation that will hopefully remain constructive and focused on achievable change. Please contact us with any insights or ideas you have on this very important topic.



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Matt Olson is a systems thinker, hacker, and social entrepreneur proud to call Chico home. He's a software engineer with a particular interest in using social business to address seemingly intractable problems. When it's time to relax, you'll find him on the roads and trails of the North State on his Homer Hilsen, playing bocce, or building robots with his boys.


  1. Beave Daynard says:

    very insightful! as a resident of redding we hear alot about chico and the problems that are created by over drinking. it saddens the heart!

    i think the suggestions mr. olson makes are not only doable, but right on the money. the issue is, who will step forward and take it to the next step?? talk is cheap!!

    1. Jennifer says:

      Its easier said than done, especially with young people with huge ego’s. They think things like “you only live once,” “live fast, die young.”

      I think your biggest problem lies within the student ego’s.

      Also it’s not helping anything that Riley’s serves PITCHERS of mixed drinks.

  2. Miranda says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this article, the only thing I’d love to see added is a call for some personal responsibility on the part of the individuals drinking. A Chico local, I am no stranger to the local drinking issues and I agree that the community plays a large part in the alcohol woes, but I can’t help but wonder why there is not just as much, if not more, emphasis put on the individuals’ personal choices. Sure the bars should cut people off more, but the issue wouldn’t exist if the person wasn’t asking in the first place. Perhaps if a person took the time to learn his/her limits slowly, appreciate how intense alcohol actually is, as a drug, and we, as a community, made it socially acceptable to say “No thanks, I don’t need anymore” we’d see a lot less tragedy in my little hometown. The bottom line is that it’s a balance between the individual and the community, and not all fingers should be pointed away from the one who chose to pick up that twelfth beer. That being said, I, for one, am hopeful for what the community comes up with as alternative forms of entertainment. I have absolute faith we will come together as a community and make an impact.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Overall, very thoughtful article. Though, curved grading won’t do a thing except anger the students who have professors with unreasonable expectations, who curve so at least some people pass the class (the class you think you’re failing until the end of the semester when you’re suprised as heck you got a B).

    My favorite part was the startup incubator. I work for a high technology copmpany in Chico, and that is how our business started; Mostly comprised of Chico grads looking to live the Chico life and break out of the small town economy with their specialized educations.

  4. Brian Sweat says:


    Nothing personal, but you take on fraternities is ignorant and one sided. For one, Sigma Pi brothers didn’t kill the pledge and nobody held a gun to his head and made him take a shot. But hey, EVERYONE is entitled to their own opinion. You missed a lot of facts like the university requiring a health and safety course, in which they do: Alcohol EDU. You talk about bringing in local bars into this discussion, and they definitely have been talks of holding bars responsible for events like this. You talk about the university being holding higher standards… The average GPA for acceptance has gone up considerably in recent years with the budget every decreasing. Let’s boost taxes to counteract college student binge drinking problems… said no one ever.

    You really skipped over one huge responsibility: the responsibility of the individuals who partake in binge drinking. It isn’t rocket science. You drink too much, it can kill you. But hey, let’s blame everyone else when somebody makes a bad decision. I mean, what were you thinking Europe? You just let Hitler take over Germany and set out to take over the world… It’s all Europe’s fault! …It doesn’t work that way.

    Before you rant and rave about this issue, you’ve missed some key aspects. Your point sounds naive and opinionated. I suggest you do further research before you continue to talk about this subject.

    1. Matt says:

      Thanks for your feedback, Brian. There has been a lot of talk about personal responsibility, and I agree that that is an important factor.

      1. Liza Worden says:


        I’m a student at Chico State and a member of a new organization called SAVE, students against violence everywhere. Our organizations mission is to combat the issues you are discussing and help change the culture of our campus. Would you be interested in coming and speaking to our students? We would be so thrilled to hear from you. My email is:


        We would really love to hear from you. Thank you so much for your article, it’s one of the first that really has resounded with us and what the community needs to hear.

    2. Sara says:

      Quite frankly Brian, this article is neither a rant nor a rave. And I get that there’s typical knee-jerk reaction anytime somebody tries to bring fraternity accountability to the table. And you know what they say, once you’ve devolved into using Hitler in your argument, you’ve already lost. Individual responsibility is definitely a factor in the multi-faceted solution, but as a primary solution it shuts down the discussion. We want to throw open the doors to discussion. The research is happening right now, you’re a part of it.

      1. Brian Sweat says:

        Sara, glad you found my satire in my argument because trying to resolve the issues with binge drinking in this town is in the same boat. Many other schools(like CU Boulder) have very similar issues.

        I am a recent graduate of Chico. I have lost 2 friends to drinking / drug abuse in this town. I am an active alum of my fraternity. I’m still in Chico, have a great career, have a much different perspective than most on this issue, and I can’t say I’ve never passed my limits on drinking as an undergrad.

        This multi-faceted approach just beats around the bush. I know a lot of people take this issue to heart, and spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about this(as have I). But we can’t ban alcohol, change the party school history, stop house parties / get in the way of binge drinking, and create / enforce tighter laws (will start violating state and constitutional law, if we aren’t already). We are talking about fundamental constitutional rights and erasing history… IF a case study existed that solved the problems Chico and the university has… I’d love to study it, learn the methodologies and help apply them. But it just doesn’t exist (at least that I have found).

        The only part of the system that can affect change in the instance of binge drinking is the individual. In itself, this is a huge hurdle. Young people LOVE the live fast die young ideal: YOLO! So maybe a good look on large scale social implications of media in this ideology might be a good start.

        Quite frankly this is a battle that needs to be won, but with a playing field that has yet to even be identified. A lot of steps have been taken towards a goal, but most real solutions just aren’t feasible until young persons don’t feel the need to YOLO, Chico stops partying, and it loses it’s reputation it has gained over the last 40 years.

        I’d love to hear how we might solve this.

        1. Tyler says:

          So you would say that the individuals who contribute to the drinking culture at Chico State bear no responsibility? Yes, ultimately, it is the decision of the individual whether or not they are gonna take that drink. However, to say that the fraternity brothers around him yelling at him to take the shot do not create or contribute to a culture of binge drinking is silly. The same goes with the drinking culture that is created by the student population in general. The community is no more than a collection of individuals, and each of those individuals bears some responsibility, as a member of the community, to evaluate what they, as an individual, can contribute to the community. People do not exist in a vaccuuum. As a community, Chico needs to work together to alter the culture.

          1. Brian Sweat says:

            the individuals that binge drink bear all of the entire responsibility… and I can promise you that fraternities are just a small percentage of the issue. to even state that as significant is like any other crappy, ignorant generalization.

            bottom line. if it’s your 21st, and you make the decision to drink 21 shots, or let people pressure you into drinking 21 shots, it’s YOUR INTEGRITY AND ETHICS at question, not the people around you.

            I was in a fraternity, I turned 21 in a bar with my brothers, I didn’t die.

  5. Trippe Gibson says:

    This is a smear story if I’ve ever read one.
    Brett Olson was not a Chico State student, and his father, as sad as his story, is not a credible source as an insight on how Chico State students operate on a day to day basis.

    Also, halloween crime stats from 2001? Did you just pick the worst statistics, irregardless to the relevancy? Crime that happened Over a decade ago has nothing to do with any of the students who currently reside in this town.

    Chico indeed has alcohol issues, which need to be fixed; however I’m pretty sick of people using irrelevant facts just to make the student population look bad.

    1. Matt says:

      It is not my intention to smear Chico State. I was only providing context for the upcoming community discussion and potential crackdown.

      P.S. I am not related to Brett Olson.

    2. RD says:


      This article did a great job of pointing out that this issue has many angles that need to be considered. Not once did the author make any reference to the student population as being ‘bad’ nor did I see a suggestion that the fault lies with the students. It is a community problem and has been one for years. Although Brett Olson was not a Chico State student it does not change the fact that he died here, after excessive drinking.

      This article is a great way to start a positive discussion about how to change the problem. The stats listed (as the author mentioned) were there to show the presence of a trend. This has been an reoccurring theme in the town of Chico since my parents were students here.

      No attack or blame, no one trying to make anyone ‘look bad’- just a call to fix a broken system.

  6. REW Golfer says:

    I strongly support a comprehensive crackdown on binge drinking and partying in the Chico community by authorities as a response to the four student deaths this semester. As a human being it’s just painful to read these tragic stories of young kids coming to Chico and dying after a night of non-stop partying, which they are encouraged to do by this hideous cohort of John Belushi type party monsters that attend CSU Chico or Butte. And these bars that cater to them – with all these shots nights and power hours and so forth – they need to feel the heat too. We need to shame those who have created this climate of excess, which is killing kids and causing incredible grief in their familys. Chico must change, so I am encouraged to read an article like this, the author will certainly get a lot of heat, but he shows courage. Time for people – including students – to take a stand for what’s right. Let’s create a climate in Chico that absolutely rejects these people who stumble around the city on weekends throwing up, getting in wrecks, and encouraging thier friends to die drinking shots.

  7. Brian Sweat says:

    I am going to make this simple and clear. The the police found that the organization Sigma Pi HAD ABSOLUTELY NO INVOLVEMENT with what happened to with Mason. I will do my best to get a copy of the police report and send it your way. I suggest you, The Synthesis, take a real close look at your “facts” before you publish ignorance like this,

    1. Brian Sweat says:

      excuse my typos.

    2. Matt says:

      For the record, I did not say that this was a Sigma Pi sponsored event, only that Mason was out with his brothers that night, which is true.

      Brian, you seem to be entirely focused on one aspect of this article. I am not placing all of the blame on fraternities. If you read the entire article, I was attempting to point out that we all have some level of responsibility for the drinking culture here, and everyone can play a part to tone it down a notch.

      Please take a careful, unemotional, read of the entire article and I hope you’ll find it to be balanced and not exclusively blaming frats for all the world’s problems.

      1. Brian Sweat says:

        Right, but as my first reply states a bunch of other fallacies in most other sections of your article. You also missed a couple other big events that have happened in Chico that have a lot of bearing on this subject…

        Regardless, this article seems less than thought out.

        I am going to jump back on the subject of Mason, because you started your article that way to provoke some sort of profound effect. I have spoken with people that were there that night. His brothers were not making him drink. Nobody was chanting for him to drink. His brothers were in fact the ones who made him leave the bar.

        But feel free to keep thinking you are right on this one. Just makes me realize how little effort The Synthesis puts forth as an organization to validate what they publish. Just seems like some ignorant publication that is willing to publish articles for effect rather than merit.

  8. Michael says:

    You should be embarrassed by this article. Did you try and fact check at all? If you would have even bothered to look at the police report then you would have know that Sigma Pi was cleared of any wrongdoing as well as the fact that the 21 shots for his 21st birthday was lie and never occurred. This has become a problem in journalism. You can write a flashy piece full of lies that gets the front page. Then when it comes out how misleading the article is, it is too late because everyone has already read it. It’s supposed to be okay though because you’ll type up a three sentence apology and hide it somewhere. To lead with such blatant libel about Mason is disrespectful to his family, friends, and the wonderful man the he was.

    1. Matt says:

      Michael, please see my above comment in response to Brian. I am not interested in the criminal liability of Sigma Pi. With regard to the fraternities, I am more interested in the moral obligation of brotherhood. But as I stated, this is an issue that goes far beyond the frats.

  9. Michael says:

    Then why lead with he was taking 21 shots for his 21st birthday? Why say he was doing that with the help of his fraternity brothers? None of that is true!!!! You say “Pressuring a brother to drink dangerous volumes of alcohol is a betrayal”. That would be true if they were being pressured to drink, but they aren’t. You are writing about something you know nothing about; relying on stereotypes instead of the truth.

    1. Matt says:

      The facts presented in this piece were sourced from numerous news outlets that all reported it the same way, as well as from the President of Chico State, who met with fraternity leadership after this event to gather the facts.

      As for my suggestions to the fraternities later in the article, those are general statements that I stand by. I did not address Sigma Pi, I addressed fraternities in general, saying that they need to take their responsibilities to their brothers seriously. Frankly, if you think that fraternities do not support/encourage/pressure people to drink, even to excess, then you are even more out of touch than you claim me to be. On this point, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  10. John Stewart says:

    Great…another article destroying CSU, Chico.

    How many alcohol-related deaths have occurred due to non-university Chico residents? Since the local bars have had these cheap drinks for so many years, and because of all the local alcoholics walking around aimlessly, I assume there has to be many non-student alcohol related deaths. Can we get any coverage on this? Thanks.

    Make sure to suspend fraternities and sororities and reinstate them too, that should solve the problem, right? If we want sororities and fraternities to change their drinking, we are going to have to reform the culture of greek life in the entire country that dates back to centuries ago. We will not be able to change the attitudes and opinions of the members of Greek life.

    Additionally, what is going to be changed by this article besides leaving everyone who reads it upset and angry and prevent future students from wanting to attend this school? In my opinion, nothing is going to change. This is just more negative coverage on a quality university.

    1. Basil says:

      You’re trippin’

  11. K. Callaghan says:

    The University and police do not always state all the facts.
    I am Carly Callaghan’s mother and the night she drank just hours before she fell unconscious, she called 911 because she was disorientated from drinking too much. Both her and her friend (another girl) could not find their way home. What did the Chico police do? They called a cab and sent her home. Within hours she went into a coma and was found dead a couple of days later. Yes there were also drugs in her system that she took when she got home. Had they done their job and put her in the drunk tank and watched over her, she may be alive today. The police just look the other way. It happens all the time with student drinking. A sad loss for us as she was our only child and a beautiful soul.

  12. K. Callaghan says:

    And I would like to say one more thing. Carly said to me in July of 2012. “Mom, I do not want to go back to Chico, if I do it will be the death of me.” And I asked why and she said that everyone drinks up there and that life is really lonely when everyone drinks and you don’t. She had been attending AA her last semester. I said, you don’t have to go, you can go to another school. But she was in her senior year and she wanted to finish up and graduate and could not get transferred very easily. She tried, but was rejected. So she felt stuck. And so, she ended up going out to the bars and drinking the Friday night of Sept 14th. The lure was too great.
    Chico is a party school and they have to take some responsibility because this reputation has been tagging them for far too long. Carly never drank before she went to Chico. The only reason she went there is because her dad did. He survived, she did not.