Darien is one of many schools across the state that requires students to submit to a Breathalyzer test to gain entrance. School officials say the test is a fair way to ensure the safety of all students and send a clear message of zero tolerance for underage drinking.
But Mr. Hennessy and some other students see it as a violation of privacy. “I think they are completely ridiculous and a breach of personal freedom,” he said. “What you do off school grounds should be your own business.”
In Simsbury and other districts like Southington and Clinton, students are tested not only at school parties, but also during the school day if they are suspected of drinking. The Breathalyzer, a small hand-held device, is the latest weapon in the arsenal that school officials, with the backing of concerned parents, are using to curb underage drinking.
Some schools are searching purses and bags at the door for alcohol, or prohibiting students from carrying any bags into a dance. Many schools are offering alcohol-free graduation parties and after-parties for proms to help curb drinking after major school functions.
Districts are working with parents who are willing to sign contracts that their homes are alcohol-free zones during student parties or at gatherings before or after school events. School athletes who get caught drinking or appear in pictures on Web sites like MySpace.com drinking are being disciplined and could be suspended from playing sports under new policies at many districts.
In a Connecticut School Health Survey in 2005, more than half of 12th graders, or 59 percent, said they had used alcohol during the month, along with 48 percent of 11th graders, 42 percent of 10th graders and 35 percent of 9th graders.
Over all, 45 percent of high school students surveyed said they had used alcohol, compared with 43 percent nationwide, according to the study, conducted by the State Department of Health with help from the Department of Education.
Nationally, experts say there has been progress in reducing drinking, with 26 percent of 12th graders reporting binge drinking in 2007, down from 30 percent in 2000. And school and health officials say Breathalyzer tests are one way to help reduce alcohol usage among students.
Craig Turner, vice chairman of the Connecticut Coalition to Stop Underage Drinking, said the increased testing in schools is an outgrowth of a state crackdown on underage drinking: In 2006, Connecticut enacted legislation that fined anyone providing alcohol to minors.
“Schools recognize that there is pressure on kids to drink to conform and to be accepted by the group, and they are working to set a standard that it won’t be allowed,” Mr. Turner said.
Administrators at some high schools using the tests said the incidence of drinking at dances prompted them to administer Breathalyzer tests to all students. By doing so, school officials said, they cannot be criticized for singling anyone out.
Simsbury High School purchased Breathalyzer equipment in 2006 and required students suspected by administrators of drinking at the senior prom to be tested. Twenty-one students were found to have been drinking and were suspended from school and the graduation ceremony that year, Neil Sullivan, Simsbury’s principal, said.
“It was very painful for the community,” Mr. Sullivan said. “We were calling into question whether we could even keep holding the dances.”
After consulting with parents, teachers and the School Board, Mr. Sullivan said, the school district decided to enact a new policy to test all students for alcohol before entering dances.
Simsbury now has six Breathalyzer kits, which cost a total of about $300, to test students at every dance this year.
“From my point of view, it has been a successful initiative because we have not had an episode of student drinking since we started,” Mr. Sullivan said.
Darien High School’s principal, Dan Haron, said his district also decided to administer the Breathalyzer tests to all students this year because of problems with alcohol at previous dances.
“We had a few unfortunate incidents at the prom last year where students had clearly been drinking prior to coming, and we wanted to make sure to discourage that behavior,” Mr. Haron said. “Our main goal is to make sure students are safe and, once they are at the dance, have fun in a wholesome way.”
By mandating that all students attending a dance take the test, the school can avoid criticism, which it faced in the past, that educators are unfairly picking on certain students, school officials said.
Mr. Haron acknowledged that many upperclassmen are not happy with the new policy and that attendance at dances has dropped.
“If there is a negative aspect, then it is that we’ve seen far fewer seniors at school dances than in previous years,” he said.
Mr. Haron also said that other schools testing students reported similar declines at dances, but he added that as students became more used to the testing, he hoped attendance would increase.
Lindsay Gordon, 17, a senior at Darien High, said some students skip the dances and drink at private parties instead.
“If kids want to drink, they will drink,” said Ms. Gordon, who is editor of the student newspaper. “They will just go to another party rather than the dance.”
Charlotte Myers, a junior at the high school, said the policy was not a deterrent. “I think it makes kids turn to other substances,” she said.
Margaret Burch, 18, a senior at New Canaan High School, which also requires students to take a Breathalyzer test before entering a school dance, said the testing makes students feel awkward.
“Here you are, all dressed up and ready, and then the principal is sticking a thing in your mouth and it gets everyone angry,” said Ms. Burch. “You just get annoyed, like why can’t they trust us.”
Some students, however, said the testing helped reduce peer pressure to drink.
“It gives kids a chance and a reason to say no; it’s a good excuse,” said McKay Potter, 18, the senior class president at Darien High school.
Many parents have welcomed the school policies.
Dr. Sandy Gordon, an emergency room physician and the father of Lindsay Gordon, the Darien High School senior, said he was grateful that the school was taking steps to ensure students’ health.
“As an emergency room doc, I’ve seen lots of teens with alcohol poisoning,” he said. “This is another level of trying to ensure our children are safe.”
Captain Fred Komm of the Darien Police Department, who oversees an underage-drinking-tips hot line in town, said schools could be held liable if students left a dance intoxicated and got into driving accidents. He said the Breathalyzer tests were helpful as part of an overall community approach to prevent underage drinking.
“It’s a positive step.” Captain Komm said. “It’s not overly intrusive.”
School officials said they realized that the tests were not going to stop all underage drinking and that they would also continue to rely on alcohol and drug education programs to inform students of the dangers.
“It doesn’t solve the problem of teenage drinking,” said Jack Sennott, chairman of the Simsbury Board of Education. “But it solves the problem of teenage drinking at school dances.”
(Article courtesy of The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com )
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