PORTSMOUTH — Students would be subject to random breathalyzer tests at school dances and other functions under a policy being considered by the School Committee.
The committee Tuesday night voted unanimously to approve a first reading of the policy, one of several dealing with the unauthorized use of drug and alcohol by students and school employees that the panel is considering. The new guidelines could be adopted by the committee at its next meeting Sept. 24.
The current school policy already allows the use of “mechanical devices” — such a breathalyzer machines — to screen a student if it’s suspected he or she is under the influence of alcohol or drugs on school property, in a school vehicle or during academic activities.
The new policy would also give trained school personnel permission to randomly screen students at school-sponsored events, as long as the superintendent has given her pre-approval.
High School Principal Robert Littlefield said the only device used would be a breathalyzer. “It’s not at all invasive,” he said.
Students would be notified in advance that there could be random screenings at a school function, such as the Homecoming dance on Sept. 28, said Mr. Littlefield.
“We would be right up front on what the conditions would be and what the procedures would be to gain entrance into that dance,” he said, adding that a student could be picked at random, or targeted to “to confirm a suspicion.” A student’s refusal to be screened would be considered an admission of guilt, he said.
While the possession of alcohol, drugs or drug paraphernalia results in a suspension from school, a failed screening at a dance would merely deny a student’s entrance to that event, according to School Committee Chairman David Croston.
Committee member Fred Faerber asked what would happen if a student was suspected of driving to a function while intoxicated, but refused to be screened at the door.
Mr. Littlefield said school personnel would never allow a drunk student to get back behind the wheel. An intoxicated student would be held until his or her parents arrived, he said.
However, he said “if a student is (refusing) merely on principal and we have no suspicions that they’re drinking,” it’s unlikely he or she would be detained.
Rules on extracurricular activities
The committee also unanimously approved the first reading of a policy that sets consequences for students participating in sports or other extracurricular activities who are caught using or possessing illegal substances on school property, or at school functions or activities held off site.
Infractions on school property by students who aren’t involved in extracurricular activities would fall under the normal school disciplinary measures regarding drugs or alcohol. If those same students use or possess illegal substances off school property, that’s between them and the police, said Mr. Littlefield.
The rules are tougher for students involved in sports and other after-school activities for a simple reason, said Mr. Croston: “It’s a privilege to be involved in extracurricular activities.”
A student who violates the policy the first time would be suspended from two games or extracurricular activities. A second violation would mean a 90-day suspension from the sport or activity. A third violation would result in a year-long suspension from the activity.
The guidelines also would require students in extracurricular activities to attend a mandatory meeting each year that includes substance abuse education and a review of the team or club rules. Students and parents would also have to sign a form indicating they understood the rules.
The policy also intends to assist students if they’re having any problems with substance abuse. Under a section on “self-referral,” students who approach a counselor or staff member independently to confide “prior to being involved in an incident” would not face sanctions.
Committee member Emily Copeland and Mr. Littlefield both had concerns about the self-referral part of the policy, saying some students could admit to an infraction after the fact and then get off the hook.
“What if I violated on district property and then I self-refer?” asked Ms. Copeland.
Mr. Littlefield said he could envision a Monday morning “race to the principal’s office … simply to avoid the consequence.”
Mr. Croston called their objections “illogical,” pointing out that the policy clearly states that a student must “self-refer” prior to an incident, not after the fact. “The idea of self-referral is the most important element in this entire document,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to “destroy” the policy because of a dispute over one portion of it.
Mr. Littlefield assured the chairman that he was strongly in favor of guidelines that are intended to help students. “There is no way I would advocate for a policy … that would discourage a student coming forward and saying, ‘I’m in trouble; can you help me?’” he said.
Should practices count?
Another question raised was whether or not athletes under suspension should still be able to practice with their teams.
By taking practices into account, a punishment could mean different things depending on the sport, Mr. Littlefield said. A soccer player who violates the policy for the first time could be suspended for only two days if he or she had games on consecutive nights, he said. A football player, on the other hand, could miss two full weeks with his team.
“We have said in enforcing our policy that you are not to be with your team (during practice),” said Mr. Littlefield, adding that another school of thought says it’s better for violators to be with their team rather than unsupervised.
Mr. Faerber said he’d like to see the policy enforce tougher punishments.
“Drugs or alcohol, you’re off the team for a year, period,” he said, adding that this tough-love approach has had success in other districts.
Ray Davis, coordinator for the Portsmouth Prevention Coalition, praised the committee for updating its policy on substance abuse. He also urged the panel to send a copy of the guidelines to the town’s Juvenile Hearing Board.
The committee expects to revisit the draft policy at its next meeting.
Drug policy for employees
Also Tuesday night, the committee approved the first reading of a policy dealing with the unauthorized use of drug and alcohol by school employees.
Among the provisions of the policy, an employee must notify an immediate supervisor of any criminal drug conviction within two days or face disciplinary action which could lead to a dismissal. Employees who seek support regarding a substance abuse problem will be provided assistance by the district. Leaves of absence for treatment may be obtained under the medical leave provision of the appropriate labor contract or policy, the guidelines point out.