Schools turn to breath tests to stem prom drinking
A growing number of Long Island school districts, attempting to discourage students from pre-prom drinking binges, plan to conduct police-style field sobriety tests.
Seeking to keep their students safe, many of those districts also are buying alcohol-detection devices.
"It's become very big," said one Suffolk County highway patrolman, Jim Spadaro. He said he has trained teachers and administrators from more than a half-dozen districts in two years. "A lot more districts are on board."
Smithtown last week became the latest district to adopt a breath-test policy. Smithtown is among at least 11 districts where staff have been trained in sobriety testing of students, joining Cold Spring Harbor, Connetquot, Hewlett-Woodmere, Islip, Long Beach, Northport-East Northport, Rockville Centre, Shoreham-Wading River, Three Village and West Islip.
Smithtown officials, like those from other districts, said students will be tested if there is a "reasonable suspicion" they have been drinking. Smithtown's two high schools will hold separate proms, on Saturday and on June 20.
Long Island students face suspensions for drinking, and seniors are barred from graduation ceremonies, officials say. Some districts call police when a student is found with alcohol on his or her breath.
Breath tests are "another deterrent that we can use" to discourage students from drinking, Smithtown school board president Gladys Waldron said.
"Some kids make stupid mistakes," she said. "Maybe you can deter some kids from even going to the prom."
School officials say the tests appear to be effective.
"Every year, before we started to use the Breathalyzer, we had kids using alcohol before the prom," said Carol Burriss, principal of South Side High School in the Rockville Centre district, among the first on Long Island to start testing students when it purchased a breath tester more than a dozen years ago. Burriss said students also drank in rented limousines.
The breath test, she said, "has made a tremendous difference."
Schools that have alcohol detectors say they rarely use them. Burriss said she could remember using it only once: the day after a prom, when a student showed up apparently drunk for graduation practice.
Daniel Holtzman, principal at Shoreham-Wading River High School, said his district authorized use of a breath test three years ago to curtail the use of alcohol at school functions and to prevent students from coming to school events under the influence, and has rarely had to use it.
Students, Burriss said, are "good people. . . . They don't want to miss graduation. Nor do they want to embarrass their families."
Just knowing the principal may test their breath is enough to keep students from drinking, school officials say.
A spokesman for Advanced Safety Devices, the Chatsworth, Calif., company that sells the Breathalyzer brand tester, said school districts were rare customers a decade ago. But sales to schools nationally have increased steadily in recent years, he said.
In two days of training last week at Smithtown district offices, Spadaro and two other officers taught seven administrators how to use alcohol sensors made by Intoximeters Inc., of St. Louis. They also learned the signs of alcohol and drug use -- such as slurred speech and dilated or constricted eye pupils -- and how to conduct field sobriety tests.
Officer Robert Capozzi told the administrators their aim should be to steer students away from drinking -- before it leads to tragedy.
"We're not looking to hammer these kids," he said. "We're looking to get them help."
Critics, however, say field sobriety tests are based on dubious science. Garden City defense attorney Bruce A. Barket said it's "ridiculous" for schools to test students for alcohol.
"The standard field sobriety test tests agility, not intoxication," Barket said. "You have some teacher who's a math teacher getting trained in a field sobriety test?"
The growth of alcohol testing by local districts was applauded by Denna Cohen, of Coram, a spokeswoman for the Long Island chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She said all schools should test students for alcohol consumption, both at social events and at school.
"They're not waiting till they're 21 before they drink," said Cohen, whose daughter Jodi Cohen, 21, was killed by a drunken driver on June 1, 1989. "They need to drink responsibly. Until they can do that, the schools have to do it for them."