Cool or Uncool?: Breathalyzers At The Prom

Ahh….prom season. That glorious segment of the high school social calendar that is dominated with decisions over dresses, hair styles and dates. It is also the time of year when teenagers prove their capacity for subterfuge. They contemplate pre-parties and after-parties, dedicating energy to a careful master-minding of ways to pilfer alcohol from parents’ liquor cabinets or to exploit the purchasing habits of older siblings.

The prom is not an excuse for debauchery for all high school students. On behalf of all the non-drinkers out there, let me say it loud and proud: I didn’t have my first drink until I was a sophomore in college. Nevertheless, my prom preparations were always impacted by the drinky-drink chatter of my friends and peers. Even then, my chem-free approach was something of a quiet minority.

So the subject is lurking at most every prom. Who will be drinking, how will they get their drinks, and where will they do the drinking? Is their hope to be drunk on arrival, are they planning on nipping at a flask in the bathroom of the actual dance, or are they waiting until after they do the Dougie for three hours on a parquet floor? It’s a part of prom-dom that’s as cliche as the corsages.

Well, one high school isn’t standing for it anymore. After some kids showed up drunk to a homecoming dance in December, Indiana’s Chesterton High School announced a plan for prom chaperones to administer breathalyzer test on prom-goers. Those students who tested positive after that first test would be re-tested by a police officer. Any student that failed the second test would be turned over to the police, and face suspension and restrictions on their extra-curricular activities. The School Board recently approved the plan.

The initiative is sparking strong reactions. Because the tests are intended for all students, some argue that it is overbroad. Others have raised concerns about the effectiveness of the tests themselves, and the possibilities for false positives. Still others might look at the stand taken by students at a New Jersey high school – those students refused to take the test on the grounds it violated their constitutional rights.

My take? I think the program is a good idea, but should be more narrowly tailored. Here’s why:

  1. The school would probably win a legal challenge to the testing policy. The Supreme Court has upheld mandatory drug testing of public school student-athletes, and I would think the school could argue that the breathalyzer tests further the school’s interest in preventing alcohol abuse by the minors who chose to attend a school-sponsored social event. The breathalyzer test does not involve an element of indignity – such as a strip search – and all parents know that their children are subject to testing. These factors favor the school, when viewed in the light of legal precedent.
  2. High schoolers are not supposed to be drinking. The legal drinking age is 21. High schoolers are (traditionally, and by a huge majority) under 21. End of conversation.
  3. In addition to being illegal, drinking before or at the prom is dangerous. There are issues surrounding driving while impaired, becoming sick at the dance, making other bad decisions, and setting a negative example for fellow students.
  4. The school cannot be seen as condoning the activity/related behavior. Where the school is both the host and over-riding chaperone of the event, it cannot be seen as turning a blind eye to students who are drunk while in the school’s “care.” It’s irresponsible, and it’s weak. The school should take proactive steps towards combating alcohol abuse in connection with the prom, rather then simply reacting when an incident – or worse, an alcohol-related tragedy – occurs.
  5. The threat of a breathalyzer test will likely be an effective deterrent to drinking before or at the prom. Most students should be smart enough, and conscientious enough, to modify their risk tolerance in light of the fact that (a) chaperones will be vigilantly monitoring the crowd; and (b) the test is an objective method of proving a student has been drinking. The pre-identified repercussions of police involvement and school exclusions also make the consequences for misbehavior clear.
  6. False positives mean the student might have to leave the dance. That risk is a fair trade-off for the reward of correctly identifying students who are, in fact, drunk. The student who falsely tests positive can work, together with his or her parents, to undo the repercussions of the incorrect results after the dance. Alternatively, students with conditions – such as diabetes or acid reflux – that are commonly known to result in false positives can raise those concerns with the school before the dance.
  7. BUT, all students should not actually have to be tested. It should be obvious, or at least reasonably clear, which students at the prom have been drinking. Where police are already going to be involved in monitoring the dance, chaperones will not be left to their own devices in determining whether a student merits testing. Acting in concert, the adults – civilian and police – should remove students from the crowd for testing as necessary. That makes the process more efficient, adds a layer of justification to whatever tests are actually carried out, and still encourages responsible behavior by all. It also should reduce the chances for false positives.

What do you think? Are these breathalyzer tests cool or uncool?

Featured image via Shutterstock.