Students at Del Oro High School know the drill.
If they want to attend school dances, they must exhale into a hand-held device that detects whether they’ve consumed alcohol.
Principal Dan Gayaldo said he got plenty of support from parents and students when the Loomis school began screening all students last year as they walked into dances, the result of past indiscretions by those who showed up drunk.
This year, testing begins Friday with the back-to-school dance. And Gayaldo said he expects other campuses in the Placer Union High School District may adopt the practice.
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“Overwhelmingly our students and our community felt it was nothing more than doing what they were doing at home,” he said. “Parents were sending their kids to us, expecting us to follow through with the rules that the vast majority of them have at home. So from that perspective, I felt it was the right thing to do.”
So far, few publicly disagree. The grumbling, when it comes, has more to do with the 20-minute wait to get into dances.
Senior Robert Coe, 17, said waiting in line was annoying and a waste of time. But he said he understands the need.
“We used to have a big problem with a lot of people being drunk and bringing alcohol,” he said.
The Placer County grand jury, which investigates complaints about public entities, offered kudos to the school in its final report in June. “This new procedure has merit,” wrote jurors, praising the school’s administration for “taking a bold, proactive and preventative approach regarding students’ health and safety at school dances.”
For years, schools nationally have explored ways to discourage drug and alcohol use at schools while avoiding legal challenges. In the Sacramento region, Del Oro with its across-the-board testing is an anomaly. No district contacted locally said it has a school that screens all students for drugs or alcohol.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in support of random tests to screen students involved in sports or other extracurricular activities, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
A civil rights attorney said any blanket screening of students in the absence of reasonable suspicion may be unconstitutional.
The U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure, said Linnea Nelson, education equity attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. That means the search of a student by school staff “must be triggered by reasonable suspicion that the student has violated a law or school rule,” she said.
The ACLU sued a Redding-based district, resulting in a 2011 policy change.
Jim Cloney of Shasta Union High School District said the district of about 4,500 students has been randomly testing athletes for drugs since the late 1990s. Nearly a decade ago, it expanded testing to include students in competitive extracurricular activities such as Future Farmers of America, band and science bowls, “anything where the kids were representing the school in competition,” Cloney said. “The ACLU had concerns. Eventually they filed a lawsuit.”
In a settlement, he said, the district reverted to random testing only athletes.
By contrast, Principal Buck Kasowski at Grand Forks Central High School in North Dakota said his school has been testing students for a dozen years as they walk into dances.
“Never in 12 years has a parent ever asked us why we’re doing it or has said, ‘You have no right doing it,’ ” Kasowski said. “We test every kid who comes in. We have the students say their name, grade and school. The machine sucks in the air. It goes pretty fast.”
Two Sacramento area high schools, Folsom and Vista del Lago, have for years conducted random tests at school dances using breathalyzers that measure the level of alcohol on a person’s breath, said Dan Thigpen, spokesman for the Folsom Cordova Unified School District.
“It’s done primarily as a deterrent,” Thigpen said. “It looks like they caught some kids three or four years ago at a senior ball. Parents were contacted and the Police Department was contacted.”
Other area schools rely on school resource officers – all sworn personnel – to oversee many school-sponsored events, said officials at Sacramento City, Davis Joint, Natomas and Rocklin unified school districts.
If a student is believed to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, officers typically respond with a breathalyzer or take action, often in concert with district officials. They may call parents, issue citations or make arrests. Schools also impose suspensions or expulsions for multiple offenders.
A testing program’s legal survival can depend on how and why it was created.
“Where random testing is much more likely to withstand scrutiny, you have a demonstrated problem, it is grounded in safety concerns, and those safety concerns are ongoing. And it’s in that context that a school district is more likely to have that random testing withstand scrutiny,” said attorney Roy A. Combs of the law firm Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost in Oakland. Combs spent 10 years as general counsel for the Oakland Unified School District.
Gayaldo said last week that all Del Oro students tested at eight school dances last year registered negative for alcohol. The school devices record only the presence of alcohol, not how much was consumed. Last year’s dances were more popular than ever, he said. About 1,200 students showed up to the senior ball. The school has more than 1,700 students.
He said any challenge from the ACLU about the Del Oro program would likely trigger a community reaction.
“If there was a battle it probably would be between the community and the ACLU, not the school or the school district and the ACLU,” he said. “That’s to me where the energy would come to put up some sort of fight. Not from me necessarily. I think it would come from our community. If that wasn’t true, then we would discontinue it.”
Debbie Shepard, president of the Del Oro High School Parents Club, said she brought up the issue at a meeting last year and two students in attendance said a lot of their classmates appreciated the policy.
“From a parent’s perspective, it’s tough to argue that it doesn’t make sense,” she said. “The school is trying to provide a safe environment.”