Amity ponders use of monitors for illegal drinking
Amity Regional High School students who get the urge to imbibe before school dances might want to think twice: the district is considering becoming one of a number in the region that use Breathalyzers to test whether students have been drinking.
At Amity, the Board of Education's proposed policy would have each student screened for alcohol before entering dances. Screenings would be voluntary, but those who refuse would be sent home, officials said. "The high school administration has suggested the use of such a device," said Superintendent of Schools John Brady.
Brady said he hopes Breathalyzers would act as a disincentive rather than a punishment. "Just the knowledge that the Breathalyzer is there may be a deterrent for students," he said.
In November, 15 Amity High School students were suspended after they allegedly showed up drunk at a school dance; two students were so drunk they had to be taken to area hospitals, officials said at the time.
The school now stops and questions students based on the appearance of possibly being intoxicated. Breathalyzers would make screenings more scientific and give chaperones an edge in corralling those intoxicated, Brady said.
Breathalyzers screenings already are used in some other school districts in the region, including Branford, Madison, Shelton, Trumbull, Darien, Fairfield and Greenwich and Westport. Various districts use the devices in different circumstances.
Talk of the proposal is spreading at Amity High School and some students say they believe the presence of Breathalyzers will cut down on dance attendance, even by those who do not drink.
"It would be treating us as if we were criminals," said one student, who asked not to be identified. Brady said when he was superintendent of schools in Westport, Breathalyzer screenings were used frequently, but there was no drop in student dance attendance.
Amity senior Max Siegal, 18, however, said students do not view Breathalyzers as a threat and he has not heard students speak of use of the devices as a civil rights infringement. "Obviously the students can't do anything to stop it," said Siegal. "It's not going to stop students from drinking at home though."
Increasing numbers of high schools nationwide are resorting to Breathalyzers at school or school-sponsored events, according to alcoholism.about.com. The site says, for instance, that vendor Intoximeters, Inc., has reported sales to more than 2,000 Breathalyzers to high schools. It also says the devices can be purchased for about $50. Other manufacturers offer Breathalyzers for various prices, including some as low as $39.99.
Amity will account for any margin of error by screening students twice before sending them home. Officials are reviewing types of Breathalyzers, and would like to purchase at least four for use. Dance chaperones would be trained in how to administer the devices.
At Shelton High School, Headmaster Donald Ramia said school officials recently gained units but they aren't used yet. Ramia said Breathalyzers were introduced to the school board in the past few months and administrators were waiting for a final OK to put them to use.
Madison had access to a Breathalizer even before a number of high school students were involved in drinking at a dance last year.
"The Breathalizer is considered for use when there is a 'reasonable suspicion' that a student has consumed alcohol," said Madison Superintendent H. Kaye Griffin.
Reasonable suspicion can be the odor of alcohol on a student, behavior that suggests alcohol has been used or seeing the student in possession of alcohol.
Griffin said a student asked if he or she has been drinking who denies it may take the Breathalyzer test to establish innocence. A positive result means the student is held by school officials or police for release to parent or guardian. A student can refuse the test, Griffin said, but in no case will school officials allow a student believed to have consumed alcohol to leave, other than with a parent or guardian.
Amity PTSA Co-President Pat Chase said that at a recent meeting parents' reactions to Breathalyzers were mixed, with some supporting the plan and others expressing concerns over students' civil rights. Chase predicted upperclassmen might object to the policy, but younger students may go along with it.
"I think we're at a time now where everyone talks about addressing the drinking issue that's going on in all high schools," said Chase, whose daughter is an Amity sophomore. "I personally don't have a problem with it, but I think (reaction) will be very mixed at the high school."
Nick Caruso, senior staff associate for field service at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said CABE has no official policy on Breathalyzers. He likened it to other contentious school civil rights issues such as random locker searches but said he does not think Breathalyzer use in schools is widespread. "I could see if the district wants to protect itself from liability if someone gets hurt at a dance from being intoxicated," he said.
Janice Heggie Margolis, executive director of the state chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said using Breathalyzers encourages students to drink because it doesn't teach them to not drink in the first place. She noted that Amity already has two School Resource Police Officers trained to detect and deter intoxicated students. She advocated use of personnel rather than a machine, because Breathalyzers don't hold up in court cases.
"There has to be a strong message from administration that alcohol is illegal under the age of 21," she said. "(Amity) has qualified police officers that can handle it."
Shoreline Bureau Chief Cynthia Baran and Register Correspondent Sarah W. Walker contributed to this story.