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Perham prom "breathalyzer" plan sparks controversy

"By requiring breathalyzer tests, the District would be teaching the students the wrong civics lesson: that they can't expect to have their bodily integrity and privacy respected, even if they are innocent of any wrongdoing," ACLU-MN Executive Director Chuck Samuelson writes.
"By requiring breathalyzer tests, the District would be teaching the students the wrong civics lesson: that they can't expect to have their bodily integrity and privacy respected, even if they are innocent of any wrongdoing," ACLU-MN Executive Director Chuck Samuelson writes.

Yesterday, the ACLU-MN sent letters to Perham Public Schools Superintendent Mitch Anderson and Perham Police Chief Jason Hoaby demanding they reconsider a plan to administer breathalyzer tests to all students attending this week's prom (read the letters here and here, respectively).

The ACLU argues the plan violates students' Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. ACLU Legal Director Teresa Nelson told us a lawsuit against the northwestern Minnesota school district was a possibility if a student came forward as a plaintiff.

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"I think it's clear that it's unconstitutional or likely unconstitutional and not really the best way to address underage drinking in my opinion," Nelson told us.

But a short time later, we spoke with Superintendent Anderson. He says that while blanket breathalyzers was the initial prom plan, that approach was scrapped in favor of a less legally problematic path some time ago.

"Really the bottom line is we had a prom committee that has been working on planning for prom this weekend along with the high school principal," Anderson said. "When they talked about providing the safest environment for the night, they talked about having a preliminary breathalyzer test, but it's different than what the ACLU is putting in their letter."

When prom-goers enter the Cactus -- the Perham bowling alley/bar/event space where the dance is happening -- the "preliminary breathalyzer test" will "measure the air around them." If the test indicates a student has been drinking, they'll then be subjected to a standard breathalyzer administered by a cop.

Anderson says we'd have to talk to the Perham PD to learn the specifics about the device, which he envisions as looking similar to an airport metal detector.

"We talked to the school attorney and others, and we feel like the ACLU is correct in pointing out we need to have reasonable suspicion [to breathalyze]," Anderson says. "It hasn't been a huge issue in the past and it's not a sword we're willing to die on, but the principal said other districts are doing this around the state... I think every district throughout the state tries to be proactive, safe, and provide the best environment for the night."

Anderson points out that the prom dance is being held a short distance away from where the grand march is taking place earlier in the evening.

"When you're going from one location to another there's always a risk there," he says. "We're trying to put together the best plan to prevent issues at prom."

Though the district decided to change plans, Anderson says some officials he's been in touch with are still supportive of the original blanket breathalyzer approach.

(For more, click to page two.)

 
"The Clay County Highway Patrol was doing a mock crash with our student body this afternoon, and when I mentioned [the ACLU's letter to an officer], they said, 'It's your prom and your party, why can't you administer [breathalyzers] if you want?'" Anderson says. "It was something that we thought made sense but turns out it doesn't so we're more than willing to change plans."

Meanwhile, the ACLU's Nelson compared Perham's original plan to breathalyzers administered to graduating seniors at St. Charles High School a couple years ago.

"In that case it was different because something was going on and there was suspicion, as opposed to this sweeping mandatory test of everybody without any suspicions," she said.

-- Follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter at @atrupar. Got a tip? Drop him a line at arupar@citypages.com.


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