YARMOUTH — Juniors and seniors who want to dance at the high school prom will first have to take a test.
The School Committee on April 12 unanimously approved a pilot project requiring all students at the May 19 prom to be tested for the presence of alcohol.
High school Principal Ted Hall emphasized the testing does not mean a new policy is in place for future dances. He said a policy could be developed after administrators hear from parents, students and staff about how successful the pilot program is at the prom.
Hall said he and Assistant Principal Josh Ottow will administer the tests as students enter the prom at the Mariner’s Church Banquet Center in Portland.
Hall said they will initially use two simple, hand-held devices provided by the Yarmouth Police Department to detect the presence of alcohol. A more sophisticated unit to determine blood-alcohol content will be available for follow-up use.
Students who refuse to be tested will not be admitted to the prom and their parents will be notified, Hall said.
Hall credited students for doing much of the work leading to the pilot program, and senior Claudia Lockwood agreed.
Lockwood is one of two student members of the School Committee, a member of the high school Student Senate and chairwoman of the senate’s extracurricular and technology committee.
“I think students need to remember that dances are a school event and are supposed to be substance free,” Lockwood said.
Students began discussing the problem because a number of them were disciplined for being intoxicated at a dance held in Freeport last December, Hall said.
“Being a senior at this dance and seeing people who were unable to make safe choices was the biggest concern,” Lockwood said.
The unanimous School Committee support for the pilot project did not come without some reservations from Chairman David Ray and committee member Andy Tureff.
“There is a question if they are overly intrusive,” Tureff said, while acknowledging “alcohol is a serious problem at school events.”
Tureff is also chairman of the policy committee, which discussed the pilot program two days before the full committee voted.
He said the student participation in creating the pilot program and acceptance that dance environments must change helped convince him to support testing at the prom.
“I have personal continuing concerns,” he added.
Ray said the prospect of testing was distressing when first considered.
“I have a streak of civil libertarian clanging when I hear we are (breath-testing) everybody,” he said.
The pilot project drew one comment from the public. Resident Jim Jackson, the parent of one of the students disciplined after the Freeport dance last year, expressed his support.
“He chose it, there is no doubt about it,” Jackson said about his son. “If a policy had been in place, he would have had an extra quiver in his bag not to make the choice.”
Under the pilot program, students who initially test positive, but claim they have not been drinking, will be allowed to retake the test in about 10 or 15 minutes. Hall told the committee the handheld units sometimes register false positives caused by mouthwash, but those traces of alcohol should be gone by the time a second test is administered.
Students will also be required to sign in with chaperons at the prom. Hall said two more chaperons will be added, and the coat check area will be monitored more closely.
Because the prom lasts three hours, Hall said he does not want testing to take too much time in the beginning of the evening. Students volunteers will be asked to leave a study hall and simulate testing to see how long it may take to get everyone inside.
Hall emphasized this is a pilot program with no commitment to creating a policy for future events, but said it was unlikely the tests would be used at athletic events.
Yarmouth will be the second area school to test students for alcohol. Students at Falmouth High School are randomly checked as they enter dances, according to Falmouth Assistant Principal Jack Hardy.
Hardy said his school’s program is supported by students and no one has tested positive since it was initiated.
Lockwood said what opposition there was to testing students in Yarmouth was tempered by the knowledge that some changes were needed at dances.
“We started out just discussing what had happened and what steps needed to be taken to create a safer school function,” Lockwood said. “It was good the students recognized things were headed in the wrong direction and want to make it better.”
She said the pilot program alone could be a sufficient deterrent.
“Hopefully, this will show for the future we won’t always need Breathalyzers,” Lockwood said.