School board holds breath, delays vote on Breathalyzers

The Board of Education voted 6-3 Tuesday night to table until June 8 a new policy that would require all students at school-sponsored dances to undergo Breathalyzer testing for alcohol.

Board Vice Chairman Pam Iacono on Wednesday said that if the panel had voted a night earlier, with the prom less than two-and-a-half weeks away, she could "envision a scenario where the public is outraged."

"We need time to give notice," she added.

Early in Tuesday's meeting, board member Perry Liu proposed an amendment to the policy that would substitute language on the BOE endorsing use of Breathalyzers with a stronger proviso, stating: "both high schools will administer Breathalyzer tests at school-sponsored dances ..."

Liu felt the "endorse" was too vague, a "toothless part of the policy."

"I want to ensure both high schools are doing the same thing. That's why I propose the word `high schools,' " he said.

Liu got support for that change, but his recommendation to have Breathalyzer tests at other school-sponsored events prompted an immediate response from Iacono that she would not support a policy that included "other school-sponsored events." Rather than argue his point to see how much support he could garner, Liu decided to drop that part of his amendment.

After nearly two hours of discussion, the school board expressed agreement with the "both high schools" change, as well as Liu's recommendation to clearly state the testing would take place for any student and their guest when entering or leaving a dance.

The policy language that board members had in front of them going into Tuesday's meeting was not nearly as specific. In fact, it made no mention of entering or leaving a dance.

While all but Liu's recommendation to expand the alcohol-testing policy to other school events was supported, a few board members were uncomfortable about going forward with a vote Tuesday.

Board member Catherine Albin went as far to say, "We're rewriting the whole policy. We should send it back to committee." Fellow member Stacey Zahn also felt a major change was being made.

Iacono said there was no need to rush just to have a new policy in place before the May 15 prom.

Rights to privacy under the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizures were among the issues discussed by board members.

Iacono said for every letter she's gotten in support of the Breathalyzer testing policy, she's gotten one asking her not to support it.

She knows Breathalyzers won't be a cure all for alcohol use by students. She wondered if more chaperones may be needed at the school dances as well.

Board member Tim Kery said he's gotten e-mails from adults saying that dances have erupted into "frat parties" and "drunken fist fights."

Sarah Finlaw, the school board's Fairfield Warde High School student liaison, said some students see positives to the policy while others are strongly against it.

"Some kids are concerned with the Fourth Amendment issue," she said. Some, she said, will turn to various drugs instead of drinking to avoid detection by the Breathalyzers.

Greg Convertito, a sophomore at Fairfield Ludlowe High School, said he felt the policy infringes on the individual freedoms of students attending dances.

"What's next? Are they going to Breathalyze me going to Student Council?" he said.

Convertito said administrators who he is supposed to trust will now be testing himself and others, looking to catch them doing something wrong and "turn me in."

Convertito said if the policy regarding Breathalyzers at school dances is approved, "teens will go somewhere else and drink."

"Kids are saying they just won't go to prom," he added.

Posing a question to fellow board members, Kery asked, "Are our school dances the epicenter of underage drinking in this town? And at what point does personal and parental responsibility come into play? ... This is infringing on the individual freedoms of 99 percent of the kids who are doing the right thing to get that 1 percent, or maybe it's 2 or 3 percent, who are doing the wrong thing."

Kery said he would like to see an anonymous survey distributed to students to see how they feel about the policy before the board votes on it. Iacono on Wednesday also supported the idea of a survey.

"I would like to know their perspective," Iacono said.

The school district's current policy on Breathalyzers is that the tests be administered only on those who appear to have been drinking. If a student refuses to be tested, his or her parents are called and the student could potentially be suspended for five days, though a school-related counseling session can reduce it to four.

Donald Houston, the Board of Education's lawyer, sat with the board Tuesday night to answer questions.

Some wondered about "reasonable notice" regarding testing, and Houston responded that posting the policy on the Web is notice. However, he said, since a Breathalyzer falls into the search-and-seizure realm, the more advance notice that school officials provide the better it will be.

If students are tested when leaving a dance, that may present a challenge for school administrators. Students leave at different times and, as one member of the public observed, a teen might say he or she's going to the bathroom, but then leave.

"We have not discussed the logistics of testing students upon exiting," Fairfield Warde Headmaster James Coyne said. "Those logistics we would really have to plan for."

Betty Ann O'Shaughnessy, a parent who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, said there is a clear problem with underage drinking in Fairfield.

"We have vomiting children in the bathroom," she said.

If that is the case, Iacono wondered why chaperones aren't monitoring lavatories during dances.

"I think we can make a better policy," she said. "I think we can make a good policy."