When chaperones at dances and ball games at three South Bay high schools can't tell for sure whether a teen-ager's high spirits come from being young or from a bottle, they bring out a trusty device that flashes the answer like a stop-and-go traffic light.
The device, known under such brand names as "Breathalyzer" and "Intoxilyzer," has been employed for years by the Highway Patrol and other police agencies to check out wobbly motorists.
Now, some school officials believe it may find increasing use on campuses to curb teen-agers who feel that a few swigs will enhance the excitement of a campus social or athletic event.
Everybody Can See It
In the South Bay Union High School District, administrators stand at the door or gate with the $75 device prominently displayed as the youths arrive. When used on a suspected drinker, the device shows a green light when no alcoholic vapors are detected, but quickly flashes a yellow (mild consumption) or red (illegal level) signal if the student has been imbibing.
"One of us holds the device so everybody can see it," said Mira Costa Vice Principal Gary Hartzell. "When we spot a kid who seems a little unsteady, we draw him aside for a little chat. If the student denies that he's had anything to drink, we say, 'Well, then you won't mind taking a test.' In almost every case, we don't need to administer the test. The kid confesses and then we can deal with the problem."
Dealing with the problem at Mira Costa, and at Redondo Union, the district's other campus, means a three-day suspension and a conference with the parents to review the student's academic, attendance and behavior records, Hartzell said. In serious cases, he said, the student may be banned from attending school events or placed in a juvenile diversion program.
"The great advantage of the breath test is its deterrent effect," Hartzell said. "All of the students know that it will be there at the door, and they know the consequences if they're caught. It's the best $75 investment I've ever made in enforcing discipline."
Hartzell said the number of alcohol-related incidents at his school has "plummeted to virtually zero" in the three years that the device has been used. "We've had to use it only once in earnest," he said, partly because students who think they might not get a green light at the door "usually take one look and decide not to come in after all."
At El Segundo High School, where a Breathalyzer has been in use for three years, officials apply an even stricter policy when a student is caught under the influence or in possession of alcohol on campus.
"We automatically suspend the student for five days, and there may also be a loss of student privileges, such as attending dances or participating in athletic programs," said Principal Bill Watkins. "It's a very strong, no-nonsense policy."
Recently, a Torrance Superior Court judge upheld the school's decision to bar a senior from campus dances for the rest of the year after he was charged with being under the influence and waving a beer bottle at a school bus from a passing car.
Watkins said use of the breath tester works for the benefit of students also, because it resolves any doubts in close calls. He said he could recall at least one recent case in which a student suspected of being tipsy passed the test and was allowed to attend a dance.
"The device provides an overall deterrent effect and we have seen a substantial decline in incidents over the past two or three years," he said. "But basically we use it as one more tool in an overall program to educate our students on substance abuse."
School officials now wish the high-tech manufacturers would come up with a device that worked as well in detecting the use of drugs.
"That would be a real breakthrough," said Hugh Cameron, superintendent of the South Bay Union district.
Officials at other area high schools indicated interest in the campus use of breath testers, but generally said they felt that other measures, such as the presence of off-duty police officers, provided adequate control at school events.