Opinion: The case for prom Breathalyzers
Both Fairfield Ludlowe and Fairfield Warde high school administrators have asked the Board of Education to create a policy that authorizes them to use Breathalyzers at all high school dance attendees. The decision to request this policy did not come easily, nor was it hastily made. It has surely evolved from years of collective experience as dance chaperones and observing first hand the realities of the times. Our administrators state that nearly all of our alcohol-related high school suspensions occur at dances.
Realizing the challenges that our administrators have faced in order to protect the wellness and safety of all students at dances, a Joint High School PTA Task Force offered to research this issue in October 2008. Their year-long research included meeting with educational professionals, inquiring to neighboring districts, attending related events in similar communities, analyzing student surveys and interviewing staff, students and parents. They Googled, e-mailed, queried and consulted both locally and nationally. Their sources have included other Fairfield County high schools, the Fairfield Police Department, the first selectman's Task Force on Alcohol and Health, Trumbull Partnership Against Underage Drinking, Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, drug/alcohol counselors (both at our high schools and privately-practicing), attorneys, pediatric neurologists, alcohol detection device manufacturers, Gov. M. Jodi Rell's office and even the United States Supreme Court.
After their extensive research, the PTA committee conferred with administrators and concluded that the practice of using routine Breathalyzers (all students breathalyzed at all dances) is the most suitable option to deter drinking at school dances. Questions of liability, effectiveness, Fourth Amendment (search and seizure) rights, practicality and expense were all quelled by their research findings and the testimony of administrators at Greenwich, Darien, New Canaan, Ridgefield, Wilton and Trumbull High Schools where Breathalyzers have been administered routinely at all dances for several years now. All of these high schools report extremely high satisfaction with their routine Breathalyzer policy. Many emphasized the ease of use and accuracy of the passive (no contact with mouth) devices, the quick acceptance by students and, most importantly, the tremendous reduction in alcohol-related incidents. In fact, Greenwich High reports no positive test results at any dance in the past four years. Furthermore, no school has reported any legal challenges resulting from this policy.
"The kids know they will stop, blow and go at every dance and they know we want them to be safe," says Kathy Steiner, Greenwich High School wellness teacher. "The intention of this policy is not to `catch` students drinking, rather, it is to give them a very good reason not to drink before or during prom. It works. The stakes are too high to not protect our children this way."
The committee presented its findings and BOE policy recommendation to the 2009--10 Fairfield PTA Council where it was supported unanimously by all 16 Fairfield PTA presidents. Then, last Oct. 26, a full year since they initiated the research, they culminated their efforts with a presentation at a Joint High School PTA Task Force meeting which included this motion:
"For reasons of absolute equity, consistency and objectivity, and to effectively deter students from drinking as well as to protect the wellness and safety of ALL students at our dances, we hereby request that our Board of Education members create a policy which makes routine the use of Breathalyzers at our high school dances and to take all action required to affect this change at our spring 2010 dances."
This motion was passed unanimously. More than 85 people were in attendance at the October 2009 meeting including Catherine Albin (BOE chairman at that time), BOE members Sue Brand and Pam Iacono (a candidate for re-election at that time), BOE candidates (now members) Perry Liu and Tim Kery as well as Assistant Superintendent Jack Boyle, Ludlowe Interim Headmaster David Ebling, Warde Headmaster Jim Coyne, Deputy Police Chief Gary MacNamara, First Selectman Ken Flatto, state Rep. Kim Fawcett, Gary Rosato and additional members of the Joint High School Leadership Committee.
It is now 7 months later and most of our 2010 proms have come and gone. Shockingly, there still exists no Fairfield Board of Education policy on using Breathalyzers. A series of missteps have occurred since the Board of Education took this issue under consideration. To her credit, Chairman Sue Brand encouraged the BOE Sub-Committee on Policy (chaired by Stacey Zahn) to develop a Breathalyzer policy early this year.
Apparently, half a year was not enough time to formulate a policy of one or two simple sentences that would direct the administrators to "use Breathalyzers on all students at all dances." Zahn submitted a disjointed paragraph as policy at the March 9 BOE meeting that lacked clarity and authority. A bewildered-looking full board recommended to return it to the Policy Sub-committee for revisions.
Incredibly, the second version proposed at the April 27 BOE meeting was nearly identical and included language that continued to dissatisfy most members. Knowing time was now of the essence and determined to insure a safe and healthy 2010 prom season, Liu motioned to amend its wording at the table in hopes of salvaging a simple and direct policy that could be voted on that night as the agenda had stated. Although Albin abstained, the majority agreed to approve Liu's changes in wording.
But the pre-vote discussion revealed a more serious roadblock than ambiguous vocabulary. While listening to the BOE members openly discuss Breathalyzers, our proms, past practice, underage drinking and the law, it became apparent that many of them had not done their homework. Their comments often indicated a lack of research and knowledge of the issue. This was particularly frustrating for parents and staff in the audience who were well-versed on this important issue but had never been contacted for their research.
Perhaps confusing lack of understanding for controversy, Albin suddenly moved to table the policy vote and the new vote date became June 8 -- well after the 2010 proms. This appeared to many to be an attempt to avoid taking a stand on a timely and critical issue affecting the health and safety of our children. Iacono apologized for the delay but stated that "it all felt too rushed." Too rushed? Nine people had seven months to write a two-sentence policy that most of our neighboring schools have been successfully implementing for many years. All the while, the BOE's Policy Sub-committee was just a phone call away from accessing a year's worth of relevant research compiled by educational advocates in our own community.
We thank Brand, Liu and Sue Dow for their supportive words and votes to courageously attempt to provide the routine Breathalyzer policy this year to assist our high school administrators in creating a safer setting for our proms.
We also must directly state our disappointment in the rest of the BOE members for having failed to respect the timeline to keep safe and healthy the more than 1,500 Fairfield teenagers who will have attended our 2010 proms. Regrettably, we see no evidence of any sense of urgency or priority in regard to a Breathalyzer policy or, for that matter, any initiative to address the troubling underage drinking issues presented in the 2008 RYASAP report which they all received more than 18 months ago. Their lack of focus, decisiveness and action is unacceptable. They have put our children's well being at risk.
The 2009--10 Executive Board and Committee chairmen, Fairfield Ludlowe High School Parent Teacher Association, Maureen Barre Lia Carter, BettyAnn O'Shaughnessy, Cathy Coyle, Elise McKay, Nancy Church, Nancy Billington, Wendy DeMilt, Kristy Macoy, Leslie Parmiter, Juie Anderson, Stephanie Hilton, Laura Karson, Lynn McNulty, Suzette Andrews, Christine Rose, Lisa Bond, Corinne Gulian, Cathy Walsh, Laura Amicucci, Joleen Marren, Wendy Bentivegna, Jennifer Meagher, Peggy Mahder, Shaun Amberg, Julie Wyckoff and Lisa Krumins.