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Perham changes prom breath test plan after criticism from ACLU

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota on Thursday publicly criticized a plan by Perham High School to require all students attending prom to take a breath test before admittance.

As a result, the school has decided not to administer the tests to all students.

Instead, students will only be asked to take a breath test if they are behaving in a suspicious manner that suggests they might have been drinking.

In a letter sent to school officials Thursday, ACLU-MN executive director Charles Samuelson urged the school to reject its original breath test plan for Saturday’s prom, because it is “likely unconstitutional, and ineffective.” 

“By requiring breathalyzer tests, the district would be teaching students the wrong civics lesson,” stated Samuelson. “You imply that students are guilty until proven innocent instead of innocent until proven guilty.”

At the same time, the ACLU-MN sent a letter to the Perham Police Department criticizing its involvement in the tests.

The ACLU-MN stated in a press release that the fourth amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Minnesota Constitution have protections that protect students from suspicionless searches. In addition, the Minnesota School Boards Association Model Policy 502, “only allows for searches of a student’s person when there exists reasonable suspicion that the search will uncover a violation of the law or school rules.” 

In a telephone interview Thursday, Perham-Dent Superintendent Mitch Anderson said the district never intended to make every student line up and take a breathalyzer before being admitted to prom. Rather, local police would have been giving “a preliminary breath test that measures the air around students as they walk in. They were never going to have to blow into a machine.”

In any case, those plans have been scratched.

Anderson said the prom planning committee changed its mind about the tests shortly after the ACLU sent out its press release.

“It’s not something we’re going to do anymore,” he said.

Police will still be on hand for the first part of prom to help monitor student behavior, and will only administer breath tests to students who give them reasonable suspicion.

According to Anderson, the original plan was created proactively, with student safety in mind. With many students traveling from the grand march at the middle school to prom at The Cactus, the planning committee wanted to “provide the safest, most secure environment.”

He said a student has never been asked to leave prom due to intoxication.

“It’s not a highly controversial issue in our minds,” he said. “Common sense told us, ‘Let’s try this.’ It turns out, we’ve changed our minds. It’s not a sword we’re going to die on.”

Rather than administer breath tests, the ACLU-MN recommended that schools provide access to an on-site school counselor with expertise in substance abuse, and create “a school environment that supports a relationship of trust between students and mentors, coaches, and teachers.”


Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Perham Focus more than five years ago, and has since worn many hats as writer, editor and page designer. She lives in rural Frazee with her husband, Dan, their one-year-old son, Simon, and their yellow lab, Louisa. 

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