Published Online: April 30, 1997

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Districts Seek To Put Cork in Drinking at the Prom

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High school seniors in Arlington, Texas, will probably think twice about drinking before the prom this year.

All students attending proms sponsored by any of the five district high schools are required to take a breath-analysis test before they can enter the evening's dance. If they pass, they can party on. If they fail, they will be barred from participating in all end-of-the-year activities, including the prom and graduation, and will have to attend an alternative school for the remainder of the school year. Subscribe to Teacher Magazine

"We see the [breath-analysis machine] as a deterrent, and it should be enough," said Charlene Robertson, a spokeswoman for the 54,000-student district. "We don't expect to have problems, because kids know the penalties and they know they're going to get tested."

Arlington is one of only a few districts nationwide requiring all students who attend proms to be tested with breath-analysis devices. But many others have begun keeping the machines on hand to use on a case-by-case basis with prom-goers who appear to be under the influence of alcohol.

Preventive Measures

Prom night and graduation night are believed to be the two most dangerous nights in a teen-ager's life, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington. For that reason, breath tests for alcohol use are just one of the tools that school groups, community organizations, and businesses are using to try to keep students sober and safe.

Nationwide Insurance, along with the help of groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Students Against Driving Drunk, once again is sponsoring the 7-year-old "Prom Promise" program, in which students sign a pledge to avoid alcohol and drugs on prom night. The Columbus, Ohio-based company projects that it will receive 3.4 million pledges this year, the most in the program's history.

In Texas, 200 agents from the state's Alcoholic Beverage Commission are visiting hotels, motels, and prom parking lots to check for underage alcohol consumption throughout the April-June prom season. The agents plan to reach 60 percent to 70 percent of the proms across the state.

And school districts and PTA chapters nationwide are hosting their own post-prom events, in the hope that students can be lured away from the temptations of alcohol by a well-organized casino night or beach party.

Breath-Test Backlash

But while most anti-drinking efforts have received strong, if not universal, support, the idea of testing all students with a breath-analysis device strikes some critics as going too far.

At Lamar High School in Arlington, a handful of the school's seniors organized a districtwide alternative prom that was scheduled to take place in a rented Dallas ballroom last Saturday night, the same night as Lamar's school-sponsored prom.

"We feel it's an infringement on our rights to test everybody going into the prom under the assumption that we're all guilty," said Aaron Pierce, the chairman of the Alternative Prom Committee. "We're just trying to prove that it is possible to have an alcohol-free prom without the testing."

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is asking officials at Dighton-Rehoboth Regional High School to suspend plans to administer breath tests to all of the school's prom-goers.

"The Supreme Court has said that a breath test is a search, and to do a search without reasonable suspicion would run afoul of the Fourth Amendment," said Sarah Wunsch, a staff lawyer for the Boston-based ACLU chapter.

School officials could not be reached for comment last week.

At Scituate High School, also in Massachusetts, Principal Prudence Goodale said she believes that breath tests are inherently "invasive," which is why the school will not be testing every student who attends its prom with a breath-analysis machine.

"We decided to try it out this year because unless a student gets sick or has a strong odor of alcohol, it's difficult to make a judgment," said Ms. Goodale, who is borrowing the machine from a neighboring high school. "This is for those gray areas, when you just have a sense that something's off."

Breathing Lessons

But in Arlington, school officials opted for mandatory breath-analysis tests after a committee analyzing last year's proms determined that case-by-case testing didn't go far enough.

The testing process is simple, Ms. Robertson said. Students must count to 10 into a microphone-shaped device that is sensitive to alcohol fumes. If any alcohol is detected, it will show up on an attached meter.

The committee decided to test all students after a parent of a Lamar High School senior presented a videotape of a pre-prom party depicting numerous students who went to last year's prom intoxicated. The students' breath was not tested, even though there was a breath-analysis device on the premises.

"We have to do it this way in order to be fair and consistent," Ms. Robertson said in defense of the district's new policy. "It is really easy for a principal to look the other way, rather than go through the hassle of testing."

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