ACLU Criticizes Barrington School Breathalyzer Proposal

January 9, 2009 12:00 am

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The RI ACLU has sharply criticized a proposal from Barrington police chief John LaCross to require all students attending high school dances to take a breathalyzer test.

In a letter sent to school officials, RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown acknowledged the pressures on school officials to address the serious problem of underage drinking in Barrington, but called the proposal “ineffectual and inappropriately dismissive of students’ legitimate rights.”

The letter supported the school’s current policy, allowing breathalyzer testing upon reasonable suspicion that a particular student is impaired. “Rather than treating every student as a suspect” the letter said, “the current policy recognizes that the privacy rights of students should not be so cavalierly ignored, and that intrusions on those rights should be limited to circumstances when officials have reason to believe a student may have engaged in improper conduct.”

The police chief has stated that students in Seekonk no longer show up to school dances with alcohol on their breath after a similar policy was implemented there. However, the ACLU letter said, “Social problems like underage drinking are not so easily solved” and suggested that, more likely than not, “some students may simply decide to wait until after the school function to drink alcohol, some might ingest drugs that will not be detected” and some forgo the opportunity to attend the dance in order to consume alcohol elsewhere undetected.

The ACLU also emphasized “the technical challenges inherent in implementing a breathalyzer testing requirement on all students. These tests must be administered properly, and with machines that are properly maintained. Since we assume that a zero reading on a breathalyzer will be required, the possibilities for error are not insignificant when every student – not just those suspected of drinking – is subject to a test.”

The letter concluded by recognizing that the school district has been working hard to address this serious issue, but emphasized that “there are no shortcuts in dealing with a social problem like this. Tragic teenage deaths in the town, not to mention increased and severe penalties, both administrative and criminal, have not solved the problem.” Current measures in place – such as the conspicuous presence of chaperones at the dances – “are not foolproof” said Brown, “but little is gained by implementing policies like breathalyzer testing that are just as imperfect but that undermine the rights of students as well.”

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