By Amaris Castillo

A plan to adopt alcohol breath testing for students in Dracut Public Schools has fueled great debate -- and anger -- among some parents and residents.

Some say it's a violation of students' rights and that testing them would be out of bounds for the school district.

A few predicted that lawsuits against the district would surely follow. Still others wanted to know what administrators would try next -- testing students' blood?

Superintendent of Schools Steven Stone has proposed the districtwide policy as a safety measure. If approved, administrators who suspect that a student is under the influence of alcohol could use a breath-alcohol testing device. For large events, like proms, all students would be tested on arrival.

The School Committee is scheduled to review the policy for a second time on Monday, Feb. 12, and could approve it that night.

The reaction -- and many questions -- from the Dracut community led Stone to issue a blog post on Jan. 25. In the post, Stone said the district takes seriously its efforts to keep students safe, and lists details of the proposed protocol.

Stone last week said he has spoken to school superintendents in Melrose and Methuen, which already have the policy in place. He added that school systems in Chelmsford, North Reading, Andover and Belmont have similar policies.

"What this really is about is those large events and making sure students are safe," Stone said.


Advertisement

"Some students will think it's part of the culture to sneak in alcohol or to drink around the prom, and that's what really led to our discussions here about how to keep kids safe."

Though the proposed policy would be applicable on regular school days, Stone stressed that it's meant largely for events for older students, such as prom. Students attending prom must agree to a cursory search of their body and belongings, and they cannot drive themselves to the event.

Stone said the conversation of a policy with other school officials began at a prom a couple years ago. Last year, a few alcohol nips were found on a bus on Dracut High's prom night.

"This is the kind of thing that we would hope to eliminate," Stone said. "If you could breath-test everyone, it takes away the desire to take it to the prom because you're going to be caught. We feel it's the most equitable way to do it. We're not going to target specific students. ... Let's just test everyone coming in."

The policy has drawn mixed reviews from the School Committee. Chairman Joe Wilkie raised concerns about the immediacy in which parents would be contacted by administrators in the case of a test being conducted on a particular student.

Committee member Sabrina Heisey took issue with the refusal of a test by students being deemed "as comparable to being under the influence," arguing that they should be able to refuse testing without it being punitive.

Second Vice Chairwoman Betsy Murphy supports the policy.

"This is one more way to make sure our kids are safe and, if they're not, it's a clue to two things," Murphy said. "Number one, we need to have some kind of intervention with discipline or parental involvement. And number two, in the age in which we live, this can be a warning sign that we need to do more investigation or put things in place that help that student."

First Vice Chairman Dan O'Connell recently told The Valley Dispatch that he is not in favor of the policy at this time.

"I just think that it's a road we shouldn't have to go down," O'Connell said. "Are we going to drive kids to do other things? That's my worry. We're not the parents. We need to let the parents parent and get back to educating kids."

Dracut High School Principal Richard Manley, who would be one of the administrators directly affected should the policy go into effect, referred questions to Stone.

Police Chief Peter Bartlett, though he said he still has questions for Stone, said, "At this time, I really can't see anything negative surrounding this. This is going to be used for prom to make sure that students who are entering prom are not under the influence. I don't think that's any more restrictive than requiring that they take a bus at the event. ... It's just another tool to make sure that the kids are safe."

Hollis Holston, a parent, said the proposed policy doesn't offer enough help to students.

"It makes me feel sad that they're willing to just punish a kid and not having anything set up to help them -- no counseling, no services," she said. "If they wanted to do it as just specifically the prom, I don't think it would be as big of a deal. But as far as testing a kid in school, it's not the school's responsibility. It makes the school be a policing society instead of a learning environment."

After Dracut High let out for dismissal one afternoon last week, a few students admitted not knowing about the proposed policy.

But Madison Brum, 16, said she's against it.

"Honestly, I think it's not really necessary, considering they have a lot of other things in the school that need to be taken care of, like our Wifi, honestly, isn't that good and a lot of vents in the walkway are broken," she said. "I think they should focus more on what the school needs to get done."

Stone stressed, as he has several times, that this is simply about student safety.

"This is not about turning the School Department into a police state," he said. "This is not a law-enforcement issue. This is a school operations issue. This really is a tool that is legal in the commonwealth for schools to use. It has been used successfully for over a decade in some communities, and the feedback from those communities has been extremely positive. That's all this is."

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