Sober blow? Controversy erupts after student gets breathalyzed
An allegation of drinking some spiked lemonade at Western Albemarle High School led to a 10th grade girl getting pulled out of class and forced to take an on-campus, police-administered breathalyzer test. With the test allegedly finding no trace of alcohol, a Charlottesville-based civil rights organization contends that the school trampled the student's Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.
"That's not a good idea if you want to protect freedom," says John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute. "It's a good idea if you want a police state."
According to the Institute, the controversy began on March 10 when two unidentified students told a teacher that the sophomore was drinking alcohol. The teacher allegedly informed Associate Principal Greg Domecq, who observed the girl during lunch but allegedly told her father that she "seemed fine" with no indications of impairment.
What's not in dispute is that Domecq had the teen removed from class and taken to a room where an Albemarle police officer was waiting to administer the breathalyzer.
The Fourth Amendment requires a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. For underage drinking at school, that might include stumbling or slurred words, Whitehead suggests. Without probable cause, all students become suspects, says Whitehead whose organization has recently uncovered a spate of what it sees as zero-tolerance abuses, including suspensions for possessing oregano (drugs) and spitwads (weapons).
"Albemarle County Public Schools have a duty to provide for the safety of students in our care," responds county schools spokesperson Maury Brown. "Information related to a student possibly being under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol must be taken seriously."
Brown says administrators believe Domecq acted responsibly based on credible information provided to him and that the Rutherford account was inaccurate in "multiple" areas. But she declines to specify anything that was inaccurate.
Albemarle Schools do not have a breathalyzer policy, but the alcohol test is a viable option, says Brown, pointing to the 17-page student conduct handbook. However, it appears the guidelines may not have been followed:
In the section on dealing with students believed to have illicit substances: "Every effort should be made to have the parent or guardian come to the school before action is taken beyond the preliminary phase of the principal's investigation."
While Brown was unable to say whether any punishment was meted to the students who made the apparently inaccurate claim, the breathalyzed girl was embarrassed, now branded "the girl who was breathalyzed by a police officer," according to a letter from the victim's mother to the Albemarle School Board.
"The girls' false accusations constituted bullying and slander, and caused serious distress to my adolescent daughter and her reputation," says the mother. The teen and her family did not return phone calls from the Hook, which is not identifying the minor student.
The parents join the Rutherford Institute in demanding public apologies from the two girls who made the allegation, from the teacher who passed it along, and from Domecq for going forward with the breath test. The parents also seek a clear-cut policy on future alcohol accusations "so that innocent children aren't traumatized by having their guilt assumed without evidence."
With so much emphasis on bullying prevention, the mother writes, "Western Albemarle High School proved to be far from a safe school for my daughter."
Whitehead offers to help the school system draft a breathalyzer policy, and he also wants the student's record wiped clean.
"The slightest hiccup and she can't get into the college she wants," says Whitehead. "The schools are not taking into account the long-term effect on kids."