Schools Vary On Alcohol Tests At Prom

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(Host) Prom night can be an anxious time for parents and school administrators, who worry about the tragic accidents student drinking can lead to.

This year, some Vermont schools are turning to alcohol breath tests at school dances. Others are deciding that’s not the way to go.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) Imagine you’ve broken the bank to buy a prom dress or rent a limo. You arrive at the prom. But before you can go in you have to breathe into a machine to show if you’ve been drinking alcohol.

Tony Cirelli is dean of students at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, where that’s what happened at the prom last Friday.

Cirelli says it isn’t that bad. The device, called an Alco-Sensor, looks like a small digital recorder.

(Cirelli) "Technically you’re just supposed to talk like I’m talking to you right now and the device is supposed to pick up if there’s any alcohol on your breath. At the prom on Friday being out doors and we were in a tent and it was very windy, we just asked students to blow into it like they were blowing out a candle because it wasn’t picking up anything."

(Keese) Cirelli says the school adopted its breath testing policy after a holiday ball last winter, where drinking was a problem. He says the school’s response is all about keeping students safe.

Burr and Burton Academy decided to use the alco-sensor on every student. At Burlington High, which has a similar policy, testing has been done randomly. Assistant principal Brian Williams says reaction has been mixed.

(Williams) "Some of the students are supporting it. You know they don’t want to be in a situation where there’s drunk kids or misbehaving. And some of them have stopped going to dances."

(Keese) Williams says no one in the community has objected, that he knows of.

But a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont says the testing violates students’ rights. Allen Gilbert is the Vermont ACLU director.

(Gilbert) "It’s a violation of the fourth amendment, protection against unreasonable search and seizure. Forced breath -ilizing is a search. It is a seizure."

(Keese) Supporters say the tests send a zero-tolerance message about alcohol and show that adults care about keeping students safe. Gilbert says they are degrading and send the message that adults consider students guilty until proven innocent.

Earlier this week the school board at Bellows Falls Union High School decided not to adopt breath testing.

David Clark chairs the Bellows Falls Board. He says some 40 people, half of them students turned out to discuss the issue.

(Clark) "We heard very little enthusiasm for the proposal but a lot of concern about the civil liberties issue."

(Keese) The idea was proposed by a school substance abuse counselor and a deputy sheriff assigned to the school.

Clark says it’s clear that schools and law enforcement agencies and citizens share legitimate concerns about keeping students safe. But they have legitimate differences on the best way to achieve that goal.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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