Yarmouth High School students may face blood-alcohol tests

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YARMOUTH — High school students could be asked to exhale before dancing as the School Committee considers conducting blood-alcohol breath tests at school dances.

“This is more a deterrent than a ‘gotcha,'” Superintendent Judy Paolucci said about a proposed policy to “administer Breathalyzer tests to students while on school property or at school-sponsored events.”

The proposal will be discussed Tuesday, April 10, from 6-8 p.m., at a policy committee meeting. The meeting at the school district office at 101 McCartney St. is open to the public.

At that point, Paolucci said students will also be asked their opinion of using the devices, which estimate blood-alcohol levels from breath samples, at the school or school-sponsored events.

A draft of the policy created as an amendment to the district policy on substance abuse provides guidelines for testing all students entering a school event or individual students who show signs they have been drinking before or during school events.

A positive test or refusing to take a test would lead to parental notification and discipline conforming to the existing chemical use policy.

Paolucci said she “is not a big fan” of using the test, but the discussion is needed to determine if it can make school events safer. She said she would like to hear from students at the policy committee meeting because the atmosphere may seem less formal.

The draft of the policy was scheduled for a first reading at the March 22 School Committee meeting, and then tabled because of other items on the agenda. Paolucci said she would not be surprised if development of a policy is a long process.

“I want the conversation,” she said.

An approved policy would make Yarmouth the second area school district to use breath testers at school functions.

The devices have been used at Falmouth High School events for at least three years. Assistant Principal Jack Hardy said they were introduced with student input on the practice after the school stopped sponsoring dances because of problems caused by drinking.

“Dances being what they are, you can never be sure,” Hardy said. “We wanted all the students to feel safe in the dance environment and want parents comfortable knowing their son or daughter is cared for.”

Hardy said the practice began with testing of each student who entered a school event, but with as many as 200 students attending, the individual tests took too long.

About two years ago, administrators decided to test randomly by having students pick marbles from a container as they entered an event. Students who pick a marble of a certain color are escorted to another room and given a test by an administrator.

“It is almost entertaining to the students to see who gets the odd marble,” Hardy said.

In theory, students who test positive at Falmouth events, including the prom, are tested again. Hardy said that is a theory, because no student has tested positive since the practice was instituted.

Officials at Brunswick, School Administrative District 51 (Cumberland and North Yarmouth) and Regional School Unit 5 (Freeport, Durham and Pownal) said breath tests are not used at their school events.

While selecting the odd marble may seem entertaining to Falmouth students, using breath tests at school events presents questions about constitutional rights, Zach Heiden, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said.

“Having searches without suspicion is teaching students that is OK,” Heiden said. “They do have a right to refuse a search without a warrant.”

Heiden said he would also be concerned if a district uses an inexpensive breath-testing unit prone to delivering false positives caused by students using alcohol-based hairspray, mouthwash or hand sanitizer.

“I would hate to think students practicing good hygiene would be excluded from dances,” Heiden said.

Heiden said the ACLU has received some inquiries about the use of breath tests, and finds the practice less objectionable if those found testing positive are dealt with by informing parents and following school disciplinary policies, as opposed to having students arrested.

In a recent letter to Deputy Scott Cyrway, school resource officer for the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, Heiden said he also prefers that all students are tested when breath tests are employed.

“A search where the individual administering the breath test does not have discretion as to who gets tested is better from a constitutional perspective,” Heiden said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow David on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.