The the midst of prom season, the Hopewell Board of Education approves breathalyzer use at school dances.
The Hopewell Board of Education passed a new policy on April 22 that will enable the use of a passive breath alcohol sensor device, more commonly known as a breathalyzer, at school activities and events.
Students have criticized the measure as an invasion of privacy and an unreasonable search.
Superintendent Thomas Smith said the policy is intended to protect the safety of the students.
“The intent isn’t really to catch kids,” Smith said. “The intent is to ensure a safe environment for all of our students.”
Smith cited the administration’s awareness of the hosting of “pre-parties” by students, and occasionally parents, before school dances such as prom, and hopes that this policy would deter such activities.
“That’s the ultimate goal: creating an environment where students feel comfortable to go to a dance, and where they are not worried or feel peer pressured to drink prior with friends,” Smith said. “This gives kids an excuse not to drink.”
Under the policy, schools would be authorized to screen students before, during, and after any school sponsored activity, including dances, school assemblies, overnight trips and graduation ceremonies.
However, Smith emphasizes that the policy is mainly aimed at dances.
“Honestly, I don’t see the feasibility of making it work for other events,” he said. “We’re really just focusing on the dances.”
According to Smith, the policy initially came about through conversations with the administration as well as parents and students, in combination with incidents of students coming to the dance while under the influence of alcohol.
“In the almost four years that I’ve been here, we’ve had an incident at each dance,” Smith said.
While the policy enjoys wide support among the administration and Board, with a unanimous approval of the policy at its first reading on March 25, student response has been largely negative.
“This really came out of nowhere, and not only myself, but everyone I talk to, can’t really figure out why this is necessary,” said Adil Mughal, Student Council President of Hopewell Valley Central High School. “There’s no real impetus for it.”
According to Adil, he was only made aware of the policy in early March, when he was informed that Michael Daher, the principal of Hopewell Valley Central High School, wanted to speak with him about the issue. At the end of March, a meeting was held with class officers to clarify the provisions of the policy.
“Most students haven’t heard about this from the administration, but we’ve started to inform students about it,” Adil said. “No student I’ve talked to really supports it.”
According to Adil, students have been largely divided into two camps: those who are against the policy and those who are ambivalent.
At the same time, Adil and other community members are concerned about the legality of the policy. At the board’s agenda meeting on April 15, one parent voiced this concern, suggesting that the school would be sued over the policy.
“It is in use by several other districts in the state and it is developed by our policy service that we work with,” Smith said with regards to the parent’s concerns. “We feel that it is consistent with the law.”
Last year, two students at Princeton High School made news when they refused to be screened by the PBASD and were refused entry to their prom. The two students claimed the test violated their rights under the Fourth and Fifth Amendment, viewing the mandatory test as an unreasonable search that forced students to incriminate themselves.
Students at Hopewell draw upon these same arguments in their criticisms of the policy.
“We believe that we have certain rights that this does infringe on,” Adil said. “It’s a blanket search and it’s pretty intrusive.”
For many students, this is not the right solution to combat the issue of alcohol in the community.
“One thing that me and the other student leaders have agreed upon is that this is not a really positive solution,” Adil said.
According to Adil, while the policy may reduce drinking at dances, it would not prevent students from drinking at house parties or other places in the community.
Adil cited the PTO hosted Post Prom as a positive solution to reduce student drinking.
“We want more solutions based on compassion and trust,” he said. “This policy, to us, makes us feel like we’re criminals.”
Nonetheless, Smith feels that the benefits outweigh the concerns Adil cited.
“We thought long and hard about it because of the message that it sends, but, ultimately, we felt that it was important,” Smith said.
Under the policy, students who refuse the testing will be “considered to have raised ‘reasonable suspicion’ triggering the mandatory testing.” Should they continue to refuse testing, students would be “be denied access to, or be removed from, the event.”
Students who test positive but claim they have not consumed alcohol or recently used a breath-cleansing item such as mouthwash are allowed to retake the test after 5 minutes. If they test positive a second time, they will be removed from the event and examined by a school medical examiner or physician. If the student is confirmed to be under the influence, he or she will be suspended.
Smith does not expect the policy to have an effect on the attendance of school dances, based on his discussions with surrounding districts that have implemented a similar policy. According to Smith, in Princeton, dance attendance not only did not decrease, but rather increased with the implementation of the policy.
“For us, it’s really about being a deterrent. We don’t really want to catch anybody.”