Breathalyzing Students Before Prom

CC image Prom Group by capl@washjeff.eduProm season is already in full swing, and as the school year winds down many high school students look for ways to celebrate.  One celebration ritual that some people can relate to involves consuming alcohol before or after their high school prom.  While this wasn’t a huge deal 30 years ago when the legal drinking age was 18, nowadays school officials are looking for new ways to make the end of the year dance safer for those in attendance.

One way some high schools have combated underage drinking if by enforcing mandatory alcohol screenings before teens can enter the dance or walk in graduation.  Lac qui Parle Valley High School and Montevideo High School instituted mandatory breathalyzers last year during prom, and they believe it helped deter underage drinking.  While it may stop teens from consuming alcohol before the dance, does the mandatory testing violate a person’s 4th amendment rights to unreasonable searches and seizures?  We’ll take a closer look at the issue.

Can Schools Legally Test?

A couple of high schools that have instituted breathalyzer testing before prom claim to be doing it for the safety of the attendees and of those people who have to share the roads with the teens.  By breathalyzing before the event, officials hope all students will arrive completely sober.  While the school may not be able to control the students once they leave the event, they can attempt to keep them sober on their way to and from the event, which is important considering the leading cause of death among 15-19 year olds is traffic accidents.

St. Charles High School Superintendent Mark Roubinek echoed those sentiments when he explained why his school breathalyzed students before last year’s graduation ceremony.

“It would’ve been a terrible situation if some kids would’ve gotten hurt or killed,” said Roubinek.

Nobody will ever know if Roubinek’s actions prevented any tragedies, but some parents felt that their children’s rights were violated by the mandatory breathalyzer.  They argue that only the students who appeared intoxicated should have been tested, while others say if the teens have nothing to hide, why not consent to the test?

Defense Attorney Avery Appelman, who routinely handles cases surrounding unreasonable searches and seizures, said it’s a bit of a gray area, but some regulations allow the schools to conduct the tests.

“It’s similar to a ‘student-athlete code’, which states that a student must abstain from certain activities if they want to participate in sports,” said Appelman.  “If you want to participate in school functions, you may have abide by their policies.”

Appelman added that schools can hide behind the clause that they are looking to protect the “greater good” of all their students when conducting the tests.

Consequences of Testing

Besides the debate over 4th Amendment rights, forcing mandatory breath tests on prom-goers isn’t a perfect system.  Some opponents of the process say teens will simply turn to drugs like marijuana in order to bypass alcohol detection, while others say students may skip the dance altogether because they want to drink without detection.

Another reason why across-the-board testing of all students isn’t a perfect science is because sometimes breathalyzers report a “false positive”.  As we’ve written about before, diabetics, dieters and asthmatics all have an increased likelihood of registering a false reading on a breathalyzer, and it could be devastating to a teenager to be refused entry to their prom because of an inaccurate test.

Related source:  CBS Local Minnesota

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Avery Appelman is a criminal defense lawyer and the founder of Appelman Law Firm. While his practice is primarily recognized for its work with DWI and related offenses, he has 16 years of experience working with clients on drug, assault, theft, traffic, criminal sexual conduct, and prostitution charges.
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