For several months, teachers had suspected that 13-year-old Johnny had a drinking problem. Yet, when they tried to discuss it with his parents, the parents refused to believe their son needed help.
Finally, on a day when Johnny was seen staggering down school halls, one of his teachers took him to the school nurse. There the nurse administered a breathalyzer test.
The story is fictitious, but according to a recent opinion from the Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney, it within the jurisdiction of Alexandria schools to administer the test to students suspected of drinking. If implemented, Alexandria would become one of the first school districts in the nation to use the tests.
No decision has been made to use the breathalyzer test, but some school officials worry that the test implies too severe a watchdog role for the schools.
"I don't like the sound of it. It's too policestate oriented," said Robert A. Hanley, principal at T.C. Williams, the only high school in Alexandria. "I don't believe we need that type of instrument to do our job. I can tell if someone's had a couple of beers."
School officials requested the opinion in July after a report by the city's mental health department suggested the test as one of many options the schools should consider to stem increasing alcohol and drug use among students. Although Alexandria schools provide more drug-abuse related services than most Virginia schools, the report stated, both alcohol and drug use by students was high, reflecting national trends. The breathalyzer test would provide administrators with a more precise diagnostic tool to convince parents that their children had a problem and needed help, according to Marcie Hasie-Daniels, a school official who helped prepare the report.
The breathalyzer measures the amount of alcohol in the blood by analyzing an individual's breath.
"One of the major problems we have in trying to deal with alcohol use is convincing the parents that their child has a drinking problem," said Hasie-Daniels, substance abuse coordinator for the schools. "With the breathalyzer we have scientific and conclusive evidence that can back up our claims. Parents seem to hear statistics better than observe behavior."
Last year, 47 students -- mainly T. C. Williams students -- were disciplined for alcohol use. However, Hasie-Daniels said those statistics reflect a small of minority of the students who actually drink during the school day. The reason the figure is so low, she claimed, is that teachers are ill-equipped and untrained in detecting its use.
"It takes 10 years to make an alcoholic adult. It only takes three to six months to make an alcoholic adolescent," Hasie-Daniels said. "We see 12- and 13-year-olds getting drunk on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for no apparent reason."
Hasie-Daniels says the seriousness of alcohol problems among students should override any objections to the test. She added that the purpose of the test is not to prosecute kids, but to help them.
Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney John E. Kloch supported her claims, stating he did not issue the ruling in order to see more complaints in his office.
"The machinery for using the breathalyzer results for prosecution has not been set, and I do not anticipate that it will be," Kloch said.
Kloch said he based his opinion on state laws that allow schools to control the conduct of students in a manner that does not intrude on Fourth Amendment rights, which protects citizens from unreasonable seizures and searches. Kloch offered as support a 1977 ruling that permits school officials to search lockers.
Other recent changes in the school's treatment of alcohol abuses includes allowing students to opt for a four-day counseling session while remaining in school. Previously, any student caught drinking would be given automatic suspension.