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High school principal told not to use breathalyzer to test students

An RCMP officer performs a breathalyzer test on a driver during a roadside check in Surrey, B.C., just before midnight on Friday September 24, 2010.

Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press

A high school principal in northern British Columbia has been asked to stop using a breathalyzer to test students in school for alcohol use.

A youth said that she and a friend were suspended from Fort St. James Secondary School last week after a blood alcohol screening test showed traces of alcohol.

Civil rights activists call the incident extraordinary and disturbing, but the Ministry of Education has no policy on the use of breathalyzers in public schools.

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Kecia Alexis, a first nations student in Grade 11, said she and the other student were suspended after principal Ken Young confronted them when they arrived at school late after lunch.

Both agreed reluctantly to take the test after being threatened with suspension. Ms. Alexis, who said she hadn't been drinking, said the device gave two "error" readings before she blew the lowest reading, a blood alcohol level of 0.01. (For drivers, the "warn" range for a blood alcohol level is 0.05 to 0.08, while a "fail" is over 0.08.)

Ms. Alexis said she argued with the findings, "but he said he doesn't talk to students who are drunk. I said, 'I'm not drunk.'"

She was given a three-day suspension. Despite high drop-out rates for first nations youth, Ms. Alexis returned this week determined to finish her schooling. She said she wants to be a teacher.

Tim Erickson said his daughter Janene was also suspended and has been ordered to take drug and alcohol counselling even though the result was inconclusive.

He said he is angry that the school sent his daughter home while he was at work, 90 minutes away.

"For them to let a 16 year old go home, assuming she is under the influence, is unacceptable," he said.

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Mr. Young did not return calls. School superintendent Charlene Seguin said in an interview on Thursday the devices were provided to administrators in the Nechako Lakes school district but weren't intended to be used for monitoring students in class.

"We do use breathalyzers, but not very often. They are typically used at extracurricular activities such as dances. In this case, it was used during the day. I've talked to Ken about that, I would prefer that not happen during the day."

She said the screening device had just arrived at the high school, and suggested the principal may have been over-enthusiastic. "Ken is new to the school this year. The use of the breathalyzer has never happened before in that school – in fact the breathalyzer was new."

Micheal Vonn, policy director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said this is the first time she's heard of students being given alcohol screening tests during class time.

School administrators have an obligation to keep students safe, Ms. Vonn noted, but it would take a clear risk to justify such measures.

"From a privacy rights perspective, this is a very draconian and invasive form of search," she said. "If these devices are in schools, they obviously need a policy."

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She noted that the calibration of the screening devices has been called into question. This fall, a B.C. police detachment asked an outside agency to review the way it calibrates devices used in roadside drinking tests after a defence lawyer suggested flaws could have produced inaccurate results.

Ms. Seguin did not dispute the punishments meted out to students who were subjected to the screening. "It would be an appropriate suspension if the principal felt they were under the influence of alcohol. That would be against the code of conduct." She said the issue of alcohol use is a challenge for all B.C. high schools.

She said she could not speak about individual students because of privacy issues. However, she said: "The suspension would not issued because of the breathalyzer. … Generally speaking, there would be other indicators."

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B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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