Wicomico Utilizes Breath Test At Prom To Confirm Alcohol Use

BERLIN– Six students and one college student were thrown out of James M. Bennett High School’s annual prom in Wicomico County last week for failing breathalyzer tests after being suspected of consuming alcohol.

Five seniors, one junior and a college student, who was the guest of a current student at James M. Bennett high, were told to leave the event after failing the breathalyzer test, according to Wicomico County Board of Education Spokeswoman Tracy Sahler.

“A breath-testing device was used, and the device confirmed that alcoholic beverages had been consumed,” said Sahler. “The students were not allowed to remain at prom, and parents of the high school students were contacted to pick them up.”

In a statement released by Wicomico County’s Board of Education, it outlined the possible punishments that may be facing the students.

“The Code of Conduct prohibits alcohol use or possession by students as a violation of public health and safety, and mandates a minimum penalty of five days of suspension plus five hours of mandatory counseling and 45 days of suspension from extracurricular activities,” the statement read.

While alcohol consumption at high school events is clearly defined as prohibited in the school’s Code of Conduct, the use of the breathalyzer sparked a debate among parents and community members on social media in the days that followed.

In neighboring Worcester County, Stephen Decatur High School will hold its annual prom this weekend, and the incident has served as a reminder to students and community members about the longstanding concerns about drinking amongst teens on prom night.

Worcester County’s alcohol policy for students is equally strict and mirrors the Maryland State Public Schools’ policy of removal and suspension if students are found to be using, possessing, or under the influence of alcohol or other substances on school grounds or during school functions.

While Wicomico’s response to inebriated students at the prom was appropriate, as per the state’s code of conduct, the usage of a breathalyzer to confirm that the students had been drinking by the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office was the component of the investigation that some have questioned.

Nationwide, the usage of breathalyzers in high school functions has been highly debated and in some cases, gone to court.

Yet, police officials and school officials point to the fact that the usage of breathalyzers has proved to be effective in enforcing a school system’s zero tolerance policies for drinking at school functions like the prom.

In 2014, 37 high schoolers in Florida were sent home from their school’s prom after police officers lined all the students beside the chartered bus they had rented for prom night and administered breath-tests. All 40 students failed and were sent home.

A Florida court backed the school’s decision to administer breathalyzer tests to the students prior to allowing them to enter the prom festivities, after the students argued the tests and the searching of their chartered bus violated their rights under the First and Fourth amendments.

The court ruled that the breath-tests were not “excessively intrusive” and that the school had sufficient reason to search the vehicle and administer the tests.

Back in Worcester County, the incident at neighboring Bennett High in Wicomico has not forced any changes to the planning of this weekend’s prom at Stephen Decatur, according to Worcester’s Coordinator of Public Relations and Special Programs Carrie Sterrs.

“We’ve made no changes to our drug and alcohol policy or to our planning for this weekend’s event,” she said. “Worcester County has also never administered a breathalyzer on any of our students.”

Yet, the last weekend’s incident at Bennett High, coupled with national and local statistics, has some in the community thinking that breathalyzer tests might not be the worst idea if a student is suspected of drinking alcohol at a school function.

According to a study done by Students Against Destructive Decisions, 72 percent of students have consumed more than a few sips of alcohol by the time they graduate high school and car crashes continue to be the leading cause of death amongst 15-20-year-olds, of which, alcohol is a factor in 32 percent of those.

Furthermore, Worcester County has the highest rate of underage binge drinking in the state of Maryland as almost 31 percent of Worcester students admit to binge drinking, according to a recent survey conducted by the Worcester County Health Department.

“I would hope that our students are taking every precaution to make sure that their prom is safe, and fun, and alcohol free,” said Sterrs.

About The Author: Bryan Russo

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Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.