YARMOUTH — All students who attend the Yarmouth High School prom in May can expect breath-alcohol testing as part of a community crackdown on drinking at school dances.
The pilot event is part of a student-led effort to develop a Breathalyzer policy, after several intoxicated teenagers attended a Yarmouth High semiformal dance in December at a hotel in Freeport.
School officials plan to use new portable breath-testing equipment provided by the Yarmouth Police Department that quickly detects the presence of alcohol when it’s held near a person’s mouth.
The testing won’t diminish interest in school dances, said several students who attended a meeting Tuesday night of the School Committee’s policy subcommittee.
“It won’t really affect who goes,” said Claudia Lockwood, a senior who is a student liaison to the School Committee. “There are those few people who come completely intoxicated.”
The three-member subcommittee directed Yarmouth High Principal Ted Hall to develop guidelines for breath-alcohol testing at the prom May 19 in Portland. The School Committee will consider the guidelines on Thursday.
Depending on how the testing goes at the prom, the committee may approve a policy to require breath-testing at all future dances. A draft policy calls for testing all students to avoid the appearance of singling out certain people, but that could change in the future, supporters said.
A police officer would supervise each dance, as usual, along with two additional chaperones, bringing the number of adults observing students to 12, Lockwood said. About half of Yarmouth High’s 470 students attend the several dances held each year.
Yarmouth is the latest Maine high school to consider ways to curb drinking and other unruly behavior at school dances.
Falmouth High School started breath-testing students at all dances a few years ago, at the urging of students who didn’t want school events to be canceled because some students were drunk.
The test is administered to about one in four students, who select a certain colored marble from a jar, said Falmouth High Principal Gregg Palmer. No students have tested positive since the testing started.
In recent years, several Maine high schools made headlines when they banned grinding, a form of dancing that features rubbing pelvises, usually with the boy standing behind the girl. Portland, Deering, Windham, Cape Elizabeth, Wells, Bangor, Messalonskee and Lawrence are among the high schools that have prohibited grinding.
Some Maine school districts, including Regional School Unit 67 in Lincoln, have adopted policies that authorize the use of breath-testing equipment on school property, said Yarmouth Superintendent Judy Paolucci.
Yarmouth’s proposed policy, approved by the Student Senate and the faculty, would take it a step further, authorizing testing of every student who enters a school event.
Subcommittee Chairman Andy Tureff acknowledged that drinking at school dances is a problem that must be addressed, but he questioned whether widespread breath-testing is the best response to the bad behavior of a few students.
“That’s one of several issues I grapple with,” Tureff said. “I’m not suggesting we tolerate any level of impairment.”
Instead, Tureff wondered if police could be enlisted to observe students when they enter a dance and test only those who appear to be under the influence. He said that’s the practice at student events hosted by Greely High School, where he teaches social studies.
Testing every student would take “some of the guessing game out of it,” said Mandy Lewis, a Yarmouth High English teacher who advises the Student Senate. She was a chaperone at the semiformal in December, and was “particularly concerned” for the safety of intoxicated students.
If the portable breath-testing device detects alcohol on a person’s breath, it can be converted into a full-fledged gauge that will measure a person’s blood alcohol level if he or she blows into it, said Yarmouth Police Officer Kevin Pedersen.
State law and district policy require parents and police to be notified if an underage person is found to have consumed alcohol.
The high school also is working on a variety of substance abuse education programs in the wake of December’s dance.
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]