Administrators planned to give breathalyzer tests to students attending Thursday’s winter formal at Penticton Secondary School, despite objections from a parent group that’s worried about a lack of policy to regulate the device’s first-ever use there.
Principal Alan Stel said he wants to use the breathalyzer not because of any specific incidents, but simply to protect student safety at events like dances where a few intoxicated teenagers can ruin the fun for everyone.
“If kids are going to come here for something after hours,” he said, administrators have a duty to them and their parents to ensure “that it’s going be safe and that we’re going to put every precaution in place.”
Stel, who’s in his first year at Pen High, plans to train himself and three vice-principals on use of the $500 breathalyzer through an online course. He said he’s used similar devices at every other school he’s worked at during his 10 years as an administrator and found them to be most effective as deterrents.
“I haven’t had an incident where I’ve had a kid come to school under the influence to a social function when they knew that device was present.”
Because it’s such an effective deterrent, Stel added, he won’t use it at every event. But when he does, every student who passes through the doors will be screened. Those whose samples indicate the presence of alcohol will have their parents called, he continued, and if a threat to safety emerges then police will also be notified.
The principal said Thursday’s dance would provide a trial run with the breathalyzer ahead of a full consultation with the school’s parent advisory committee, the next meeting of which is in January.
“I don’t know what my decision will be,” Stel said, “but I’d certainly like to hear from parents who have concerns about it.”
PAC president Daryl Clarke said his group is concerned because it hasn’t seen a breathalyzer policy that spells out exactly how the device will be used and maintained, and what will happen to students who are found to be intoxicated.
“We’re not totally opposed to it being used, but right now there’s too many checks and balances that don’t seem to have been done,” Clarke said.
“Also, in Canadian society you are innocent until proven guilty and this seems to be pointing a finger saying you’re all guilty until proven innocent.”
Clark said school trustees should be the ones making decisions on things like breathalyzer use.
“I definitely think there should be a district-wide policy and not an individual school can say it’s up to them what they want to do. This is a bigger issue.”
Okanagan Skaha School District superintendent Wendy Hyer said at Monday’s board meeting that principals have the authority, and are encouraged, to set policies for their own schools, so long as they consult with parent and student groups.
“I don’t believe in making rules that everyone has to follow when they’re not necessarily necessary,” Hyer said.
School board chair Ginny Manning said trustees hadn’t discussed the matter and hadn’t taken a position on it.
Linda Worden, a Grade 11 student who’s involved with Pen High’s leadership program, thinks the presence of a breathalyzer at school functions could be a good thing.
“If a group of teenagers comes to a school event intoxicated, oftentimes there will be consequences for the whole group. It’s kind of like a safety thing. And it’s not really fair to the rest of us who don’t show up drunk,” she said.
“I’m sure there are some kids out there who may feel (the breathalyzer) is a privacy invasion, but personally, I couldn’t care less.”
In July, the board of the Kamloops-Thompson School District adopted a formal policy on breathalyzers, which had been in use there for the previous decade without written guidelines.
The policy allows trained school staff to demand breath samples from students at any time during normal school hours or extra-curricular events. Students who refuse to provide breath samples may be presumed intoxicated.