Any Highlands Ranch High School student thinking about pre-gaming before heading to Saturday night's Homecoming dance should think twice. The school will be doing breathalyzer tests on all students before they can gain entry, and those who score a positive for alcohol use will be tested again -- this time by a member of law enforcement.
Below, Highlands Ranch High Principal Jerry Goings tells us the reasons behind the new policy and why he doesn't believe it will lead down a slippery slope.
The Breathalyzer plan was shared earlier this week in a letter to parents. We've included it below, but an excerpt reads: "Underage drinking is illegal, disruptive to school events, and we are fearful that at some point it could impact safety of all students who attend a dance. While we believe that the problem is limited in scope, and that the vast majority of HRHS students do not engage in this behavior, we have decided to administer a passive breathalyzer test to every student who attends future dances at HRHS."
According to Goings, no single incident led to the new approach. Rather, he says, "it was more a general level of concern. But at our prom last year, we had a couple of incidents where we were really concerned for safety." Then, as the school year got underway, he notes that "we started hearing rumors about party buses. And so we said, 'We've got to do something now.'"
The new procedure wasn't as tricky to pull off as it might have initially seemed because another local high school, Mountain Vista, has been conducting breathalyzer tests at school dances for the past several years. Moreover, the administration there had all the equipment and is loaning it to HRHS.
The devices aren't the type used in roadside stops that require individuals to blow into straws -- a technique that raises possible hygiene questions. Instead, Goings says, "they'll blow into a cone that's actually a couple of feet away."
If the breathalyzer detects alcohol, Goings says the student in question will be taken to a school-resource officer, who'll conduct another test using the straw-style unit. He stresses that this procedure and others associated with the initial test will be conducted in the least intrusive way possible.
For instance, a student who fails test one "will be pulled away from the crowd by an administrator, so it's not done in front of everybody. The staging will be similar to what Mountain Vista has done. There won't be a situation where you'll have a huge line of kids and when one of them blows a positive, there'll be a ton of kids standing around hooting and hollering. We'll have a staging area where kids will move through quickly and it'll be relatively private."
In addition, Goings notes that school personnel will be doing their best to figure out if students have been using drugs that won't register on the breathalyzer. He acknowledges that doing so is a challenge for most substances other than marijuana, which is easier to detect "because of the smell."
If the policy is as successful at Saturday's event as it's been at Mountain Vista, which hasn't had any dance-related alcohol violators for quite some time, could it be expanded to other school events at which drinking is common, such as football games? What about prior to entering the building at the start of each school day, since students could arrive drunk? Goings doesn't see these steps as wise.
In his view, "dances create a unique situation. There'll be 1,200 students on the dance floor all at the same time, which is a huge safety concern anyway -- and when you throw alcohol into the mix, it's much more difficult to police and figure out who's doing what. For football games and other situations, there's more time and more chance to detect and be in front of the kids than there would be at a school dance.
"I know this is a concern out there for a couple of people," he continues. "But the legal aspects were vetted through our legal department when Mountain Vista put this forward. I think everyone who knows me understands that my goal is to create a safe, good environment for kids, and even though doing something like this during the school day might be safe, it wouldn't be good. So we have no intentions of going further than just dances."
The response to the plan has been "very positive up to this point," Goings points out. "Everybody has their different opinions about how you do a good job of making sure kids are safe and balancing that with the rights of an individual. That's an ongoing debate we've had all the time and especially after 9/11. But I'd say close to 90 percent of the parents I've corresponded with have thanked us for standing up and trying to create a safe, fun environment."
Goings understands that some students may consider staying away from the dance, "either out of principle or because they want to drink or do drugs. But I'm hoping that's very few kids. We hope our kids make a safe, good choice to attend the dance on Saturday night and stay away from drugs and alcohol, so we can show they can have fun without having that element around them."
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Here's the letter sent to parents earlier this week.
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.