By Amaris Castillo

The School Committee last week voted 3-2 to pass a controversial districtwide policy that will allow administrators to use a breath-alcohol testing device on students suspected of being under the influence.

Citing the use of the policy in other school districts, Superintendent of Schools Steven Stone -- who brought it to committee members last month -- has billed it as a safety measure for Dracut Public Schools. Though the policy will be applicable on regular school days, Stone has stressed that it's meant largely for events for older students, such as prom. Students attending prom already must agree to a cursory search of themselves and their belongings, and they cannot drive themselves to the event.

As part of this new protocol, students will also now be asked to exhale about 4-6 inches away from the handheld device before entering the event, and the device would instantly read either a positive or a negative for alcohol. If the test indicates the presence of alcohol, students may ask for additional tests, and they would not be allowed to enter the event.

Also, parents would immediately be contacted and required to pick up the student, and the student would subsequently be subject to discipline as outlined in student handbooks.

Last week's vote was split, with School Committee Chairman Joe Wilkie and members Betsy Murphy and School Allison Volpe voting for it, and members Dan O'Connell and Sabrina Heisey voting against.


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The regular School Committee meeting, during which the vote was taken, followed a separate public hearing on the proposed protocol. Several people spoke on the policy, including Police Chief Peter Bartlett and Dracut High School Principal Richard Manley, as well as concerned residents.

After the meeting was adjourned, Stone said he'd already set up a meeting with Manley to talk about the new policy and how it will be implemented.

"This has been something that has had a lot of discussion in the community, and we will be thoughtful and diligent and compassionate and very careful how we implement the policy," Stone said. "We understand that some people might have some angst about the new policy."

O'Connell, who previously told The Valley Dispatch he was not in favor of the policy, had expressed concern that it may drive students to try other things instead of alcohol.

"I think the parents do a great job, you know?" O'Connell said after the meeting. "I don't think this is something that we needed to do, but that's just me."

Before the vote, Wilkie said he spent about 10 hours meeting with current and retired educators about the topic, and the overwhelming feedback he received was that it comes down to safety, students, choices and giving the administrators a tool.

Murphy said she's pleased it passed.

"I think it's the most appropriate thing we can do to keep as many kids safe as possible," she said.

Heisey made a motion to amend the policy to remove the section that allows administrators to consider students' refusal to take the test as "comparable to being under the influence and will discipline the students in accordance with the student handbook." There was no second, so the motion failed.

Heisey then made a second motion to remove a line in a section of the policy that calls for "disciplinary action for intoxication" if a student suspected of being under the influence of alcohol or is suspected of having consumed alcohol leaves the scene against a school official's request. The motion failed on a 4-1 vote.

A third motion by Heisey -- to add to the end of the policy a line that would call for a recommendation to parents of students who have tested positive for alcohol to seek outside health care -- failed, 3-2, with Wilkie, O'Connell and Murphy opposed.

Danielle Caputo, a longtime resident of Dracut, told committee members the policy seems unnecessary. If a student knows the test detects only alcohol and they want to be intoxicated, Caputo said, they are going to pick something else and it could be something far more dangerous.

"To me, this seems like it's going to make a lot of kids that are very good feel like they're going through the police state when they weren't going to do anything wrong to begin with," Caputo said. 

Addressing what he described as some incorrect or misleading comments, Stone detailed in a Jan. 25 blog post his proposed protocol and listed what it would include. Below are a few points:

n Students and parents would be provided prior notice of the district's intent to conduct breath-alcohol testing.

n The process will be conducted by school staff, directly overseen by the principal.

n Administrators would be able to retest a student at a later time during the event should there be an indication that the student may have ingested alcohol.

Follow Amaris Castillo on Twitter @AmarisCastillo. Her email address is acastillo@lowellsun.com.