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Perham drops alcohol screening plan for prom after ACLU protest

PERHAM, Minn. – The Perham High School checklist for this Saturday’s prom is back to normal.

Beyond tuxes and dresses, corsages, dinner and the Grand March, students had been told they and their guests would have to take a pass by a passive alcohol screening device to get admitted to prom.

That plan has now been scotched.

The tests were originally called Breathalyzer tests in an article in the Perham Focus.

That drew attention and protest letters from the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, which called using a Breathalyzer on prom attendees “likely unconstitutional.”

Those protests – and consultations with school district attorneys – led to the passive air tests being dropped, Perham-Dent Superintendent Mitch Anderson said Thursday.

Instead, district officials will rely on chaperones and stops by law enforcement throughout Saturday night’s dance and post-prom party at The Cactus restaurant and event center, to monitor for potential alcohol use by prom attendees.

Teresa Nelson, legal director of ACLU-MN, welcomed the news.

“I’m pleased,” Nelson said. “That is good to hear. We’re always hopeful that we can resolve things like this without having to takes steps further. I’m glad to hear that they’ve reconsidered their plan.”

The Perham Focus recently reported that students would be administered Breathalyzer tests by police before they could enter the dance.

Anderson said what was to actually happen between the Grand March at the town’s middle school, and the start of the dance at The Cactus event center, was that students would have passed by a passive alcohol sensor. If alcohol was detected in the air, then further testing could have been sought, he said.

“We never had any intentions of lining up every kid and having them blow into a Breathalyzer,” Anderson said.

“It was just honestly our (high school) principal (Ehren Zimmerman) trying to be proactive and trying to create a safe environment,” he said. “To get a letter from the ACLU before we got a single letter from anyone in town is kind of surprising.”

Nelson said the legality of using passive air testers for a prom comes down to whether courts decide there is reasonable suspicion for the tests.

Breathalyzer tests by police need probable cause or a warrant, Nelson said. And, she added, Breathalyzers are not highly reliable.

“That’s why they’re only used as a screening tool by law enforcement,” she said, with follow-up tests used to rule out false positives.

Courts have said athletes may be drug tested in some cases, but that’s because it has been ruled that their involvement in sports gives them a lower expectation of privacy, Nelson said. She said the same probably can’t be said of prom attendees.

The Focus reported that Zimmerman said the testing plan was backed by parents, the school and law enforcement to ensure the evening was safe.

However, he also said alcohol use at the school is not a big problem.

“It’s not like it’s been a huge problem,” Zimmerman told the Focus. “It really isn’t.”

The use of Breathalyzers or other alcohol sensing devices is widespread in public schools in the Fargo-Moorhead area:

E West Fargo High School has used Breathalyzer tests at its prom for at least seven years, district spokeswoman Heather Konschak said.

West Fargo will hold its prom Saturday.

E The Moorhead School District uses a passive alcohol screening device at its high school dances, including prom, Morp (a dress-down or theme version of a prom dance) and the Homecoming dance, spokeswoman Pam Gibb said.

If the sensors detect alcohol, Gibb said a school resource officer can administer a Breathalyzer test.

E In the Fargo School District, to get into any high school dances, including prom, students have to pass a Breathalyzer test, spokeswoman AnnMarie Campbell said.

The tests have been administered for about a decade, she said.

E The Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton School District does not require its students to take a Breathalyzer test before entering prom or other dances, Superintendent Bryan Thygeson said. If a student appears intoxicated, he said police may be called to administer a Breathalyzer test.

Officials at ACLU of North Dakota could not be reached for comment Thursday to get their stance on Breathalyzer testing of prom attendees.

ACLU-MN contends Breathalyzer testing of prom attendees contravenes the protection in the U.S. and Minnesota constitutions against suspicionless searches.

The ACLU also sent a letter to the Perham Police Department criticizing that agency’s ties to the plan, saying such testing had little legal support.

“By requiring Breathalyzer tests, the district would be teaching students the wrong civics lesson,” ACLU of Minnesota Executive Director Charles Samuelson said in a news release. “You imply that students are guilty until proven innocent instead of innocent until proven guilty.”

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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