SOUTH PORTLAND — Many students are upset by the decision to eliminate two of four dances held each year at South Portland High School, but administrators say it was a necessary step to curb substance abuse among teens and ensure their safety after other efforts failed.

The high school will still hold a homecoming dance this fall and a senior prom in the spring, Principal Ryan Caron said Monday. But the winter ball and the spring fling have been canceled because students were found to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs at two of four dances last year, Caron said.

That doesn’t sit well with students like David Fiorini, a sophomore who went to three dances last year. Fiorini questions why school administrators took such a drastic step to address the bad behavior of a few students.

Sophomore David Fiorini is disappointed that South Portland High is canceling some dances this year. He sees it as a drastic step to address the bad behavior of a few students. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Sophomore David Fiorini is disappointed that South Portland High is canceling some dances this year. He sees it as a drastic step to address the bad behavior of a few students. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

“I don’t like it,” Fiorini said Monday. “There weren’t that many people doing it. They shouldn’t cancel dances just because of a few kids.”

Juniors Shannon Murphy and Chloe Birmingham are disappointed, too. The canceled dances were a primary way that students raised money to put on the prom. “I don’t know what we’re going to do for fundraising now,” Murphy said.

School administrators plan to work with class leaders and faculty advisers to find alternative fundraisers for the prom, according to a letter sent to students and their families on Sept. 9. School officials also plan to monitor substance use at future dances, the letter said, leaving open the possibility that eliminated dances might be reinstated some day.

But for Caron, the decision to trim dances reflects broader concerns among school administrators and faculty who see many students leave dances shortly after their parents drop them off. Sometimes up to one-quarter of the 400 to 500 students who attend dances leave within an hour of arriving at the three-hour events, he said.

Caron, who typically greets students as they arrive at dances, said he feels responsible for the well-being of students after they leave, especially because he has no idea where most of them are going. And while school officials didn’t provide numbers showing a rise in substance abuse incidents at dances, they said they have witnessed an increase that can no longer be tolerated.

“For me, it’s about the overall safety of the events,” Caron said. “I know it’s not all of our kids. I know dances don’t cause students to use substances. I don’t want the whole student body to feel they’re being punished. I want to consolidate our resources and put on better, safer events.”

Caron said he reached out to high school principals across southern Maine and learned that many had curbed or eliminated school dances other than proms. “We’ve held onto dances longer than most schools our size,” Caron said.

By reducing the number of dances held each year, Caron hopes to recruit more teachers to volunteer as chaperones. In recent years, Caron said he has “scrounged” to find a minimum of 10 chaperones required to hold a dance, not counting the school resource officer and two special duty police officers who also staff dances. He’d like to have 25 or 30 chaperones to ensure sufficient oversight for a large group of teens.

Caron also hopes to collect contact information for parents or guardians when dance tickets are sold, so school administrators and chaperones will have a better chance of reaching parents if a student leaves a dance or there’s some sort of emergency. In the past, school officials have struggled to reach some parents using emergency numbers provided to the school.

Now in his fourth year as principal of the 900-student school, Caron said previous steps taken to curb substance use before dances have had limited impact. Students must sign in with chaperones and walk by police officers who are looking for signs of substance use.

While Yarmouth, Falmouth, Cape Elizabeth, Portland and Casco Bay high schools have used breath tests to screen students for alcohol use, South Portland has police officers conduct field sobriety tests, Caron said.

South Portland School Resource Officer Al Giusto said his office typically issues five to 10 citations per school year related to alcohol or drug use at the high school, some of them at dances.

South Portland School Resource Officer Al Giusto said his office typically issues five to 10 citations per school year related to alcohol or drug use at the high school, some of them at dances. John Ewing/Staff Photographer John Ewing/Staff Photographer

The high school also provides snacks at dances so students aren’t allowed to bring in food, water or other drinks. Still, at one recent dance, a student became distressed after drinking an unknown clear liquid, Caron said.

School Resource Officer Al Giusto said his office typically issues five to 10 citations per school year related to alcohol or drug use at the high school. A few of the incidents occur at dances. Since school started two weeks ago, Giusto said he has issued four citations to students for substance use on school property – three for tobacco use and one for coming to school under the influence of alcohol.

Students are immediately suspended for seven to 10 days, depending on whether it’s alcohol or drugs and whether it has happened before, according to school policy. The high school and the justice system offer various intervention programs that can reduce suspension periods, keep students out of court and eliminate $200 to $400 fines, Giusto said.

“We don’t go into any of these dances heavy handed. We get involved if staff needs help,” said Police Chief Ed Googins, who signed Caron’s letter along with Giusto and school Superintendent Ken Kunin.

Despite the administrators’ good intentions, eliminating two dances surprised and disappointed many students, parents and others. Students especially were angry and shocked, said Julia Stanton, a student representative on the city’s school board.

“They feel unjustly blamed for the actions of a few students,” Stanton said. “Substance abuse has been a problem at school dances as long as I can remember, as long as my parents can remember and even before that.”

Stanton understands the concern that school officials feel, both for the safety of students and the legal liability they pose if something were to happen while in the school district’s care. She also acknowledged that youth substance abuse is a community issue that’s being addressed by the newly formed SoPo Unite and the $625,000 federal grant that the coalition received this month to fight drug and alcohol use among teens.

“It should be something we’re all concerned about,” Stanton said. “There will always be kids abusing substances, with or without a dance.”