By Dustin Luca
---- — Students drinking alcohol ahead of school-sanctioned events like dances might have trouble getting through the door after the School Committee supported a breath-testing plan.
The committee supported a short-term pilot of a new high school breathalyzer policy last week with a unanimous four-member vote. The proposal came from the School Council, which is made up of students, teachers, parents and administrators.
Under the policy, all students attending school dances will need to blow into a breathalyzer from four to six inches away in order to enter school dances, including the school’s prom later this year. If there are positive readings from two blows, the student will face discipline consistent with district policies that handle students who arrive to school drunk.
Principal Chris Lord said he’s “excited we are going to give this a try.”
While there isn’t a schedule of events confirmed where the breathalyzer will be used, Lord said breathalyzers will be at the school’s first dance this year — the Valentine’s Day dance in February. The school’s prom, held away from the high school in May, also will use the policy for all attendees, including guests.
Such policies are already in place in some other Massachusetts districts such as Belmont, Danvers, Hamilton-Wenham and Ipswich. In those communities, officials saw a complete reduction in student alcohol infractions after the implementation of the policy, according to Andover officials.
The proposal was originally brought before the School Committee in December as a way of combatting rising student-drinking problems, according to Lord. Parent and student leaders said they solicited input on the idea, but neither received written feedback addressing the policy.
Around 60 percent of students responding to a poll last week were against the pilot, according to Brian Wivell, School Committee student liaison and a student member of the School Council.
The School Committee website put the full policy online for a month and directed feedback to it to School Committee Chairwoman Paula Colby-Clements. She didn’t receive a single message, however.
“The lack of comment via email to the School Committee means that people are probably supportive of the policy,” she said. “This particular type of policy is one that many communities have. It’s not like it’s new and novel, and maybe we’re a little bit behind the curve in not having it.”
Colby-Clements said she wasn’t surprised that the pilot doesn’t sit well with students, since they’re the ones getting their breath checked.
“Whenever you have policies, like one making you wear a seat belt, people get a little antsy when Big Brother is telling them what to do,” Colby-Clements said.
Knowing that three fifths of high school students were against the policy, Wivell said the school’s Student Government will take a detailed look at the policy and then take its own position.
That process launched the day after the School Committee’s executing vote, according to Lord.
“It’s a pilot for this first go-around. We’re going to make sure everyone knows how it works, make sure they’re comfortable with it,” he said. “We’re going to walk them through the protocols so they’re understood before the dance.”
HOW THE PLAN WORKS
All students attempting to enter the event will be given a breathalyzer test, where they will blow lightly in the direction of the device from 4 to 6 inches away.
If a student receives a positive reading from the test, a second test would be done to ensure the positive reading isn’t a false positive. If a student tests positive for both readings, his or her parents would be contacted to pick up the student from the event.
Other disciplinary consequences would be issued as outlined in the school’s student handbook. Those consequences include a three-day suspension and completion of two outside family-counseling sessions. Student athletes violating the school’s chemical health policy are also subject to rules established by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.
If a student refuses to test, the student’s parents also would be notified and asked to transport the student from the event.