Breathalyzers Showing Up At School Dances, Football Games

Schools say they're using technology to prevent safety problems.

Thinking of drinking on prom night? Think again. High schools are increasingly breaking out the breathalyzers to catch intoxicated students.

Westwood High School in Boston is the latest to crack down on students who show up at school events intoxicated. "It's frankly kind of frightening when you have students who've had enough to drink that it's presenting a safety problem," Westwood Assistant Principal Emily Parks told The Associated Press.

Last fall, officials at Newton South High School in Newton, Massachusetts, gave breathalyzer tests to students at an evening football game, the AP reports. Nine were suspended.

Stephen Wallace, national chairman and CEO of Students Against Destructive Decisions, said the use of breathalyzer tests in schools is not an entirely new practice, but it has become increasingly common in the past few years.

"As I've traveled around the country, I certainly hear a lot more about breathalyzer tests being used in communities, especially as we hear more stories about high school dances turning into drunken melees," he said. "I think the schools are really struggling with, 'How do we provide safe, fun events for our kids and at the same time avoid problems with alcohol?' "

In March, the New York Times reported that some school districts are even allowing breathalyzers into the classrooms during the day to catch students who intoxicate themselves at lunch or during breaks.

Newbury Park High School in Newbury Park, California, has a zero-tolerance alcohol policy on campus and uses breathalyzer tests when there is reasonable suspicion. "If a student is behaving as though he or she might be under the influence, or if we find alcohol in a limo that's taken students to prom, we would breathalyze everyone as much to clear those who might have not had any alcohol as to implicate those who had," Assistant Principal Athel Wong said. She said she has even had students request to be tested so they can be cleared of wrongdoing.

Students who drink have been quick to find ways around on-campus testing, however. "I've spoken to students who say they'll just sneak in or get high using something else that won't be detected," Wallace said. "Instead of drinking, they'll be outside snorting Ritalin in the parking lot before they go in."

Wallace said teens today are facing less "stereotypical peer pressure" from their friends to drink, and more of a subtle pressure from the media and society that sends kids the message that drinking is something everyone is doing, when that has proven not to be the case.

When asked how many of their peers drink, "most [teens] will say around 90 percent, when the reality is closer to about 60 percent," he said. "That's a huge difference, and teens need to know that they're not alone in making good choices."

The most important thing for people to realize, Wallace said, is that there isn't just one cure-all solution — there must be a community effort to educate young people.

"Many teens have the sense of 'I'm young, I'm healthy, and therefore I'm indestructible.' We need to do a better job as adults of educating young people about the very real and likely consequence of alcohol."