By PATRICK O'GILFOIL HEALY
AST HAMPTON, N.Y. - For years, schools across the country have deployed breath analyzers at proms, pep rallies and other after-school events to catch students who arrived drunk or smuggled in alcohol.
After some resistance and fevered debate, student advocates and even lawyers gradually came to accept that schools were within their rights to use every means to ensure that students were not toting six-packs and liquor bottles to after-school, night and weekend events.
Quietly though, a few districts around the country, from Indiana to Connecticut to Long Island, have begun to integrate breath-testing devices into the regular school day, a move that adds a new wrinkle to the ongoing struggle between students' privacy rights and a school's duty to limit drug and alcohol abuse.
Schools say they need to ensure that no students are drinking in class. Civil rights lawyers worry that high school students pulled out of class and forced to take a breath-alcohol test could be unfairly stigmatized for goofy or strange behavior.
Manufacturers of breath analyzers say they have sold their devices to thousands of schools across the country, but it is impossible to say how many districts have started using breath-alcohol tests during the school day. Officials with the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the National School Boards Association said they knew of no statistics tracking schools' use of breath analyzers. But lawyers who argue cases involving students' civil liberties said that tests during the school day are rare, and represent untested ground for most districts.
On the East End of Long Island, the East Hampton School District is venturing into this terrain with a proposal to use breath analyzers on students suspected of being intoxicated in high school.
District officials said they grew concerned after hearing of rampant student drinking. Teenagers were caught drinking on school trips to Costa Rica and Italy. A drunk student vomited on a bus on the way to a field trip. Then there were students showing up in class drunk, sometimes after having alcohol at lunch.
Things seemed to be getting out of hand, even for East Hampton, a summer oasis for wealthy New Yorkers that reverts to a rural small town in the off-season where teenagers can get away with holding beach bonfire parties where alcohol flows freely, and year-round residents describe 16 as the de facto drinking age.
So, to stop what seemed like a swell of student drinking, school administrators this winter proposed administering breath analyzers to students while high school is in session. Any student suspected of being drunk in class would be tested by a trained staff member, and not a police officer, board officials said. Results showing alcohol consumption would mean suspension. Refusing to take a test would be seen as an admission of guilt.
In central Connecticut, officials in the Avon School District are writing a plan similar to East Hampton's. A school district near South Bend, Ind. has had the policy in place for several years. Other districts around the country may well use their breath analyzers during the school day, even if their policies were originally intended for events outside of school.
But on Long Island, only one other school district - the Sayville School District - already has an in-school breath-alcohol test policy, and in that case administrators say they have not tested a single student in the seven years it has been in effect. Still, they say it has merit. "It's really preventative," said Geri Sullivan-Keck, Sayville's assistant superintendent for curriculum.
Prof. Bernard James of Pepperdine University, who specializes in constitutional law, said such policies easily survive legal challenges, but often crumple under community opposition. "In policy, it's an extraordinarily controversial issue," he said.
News of the plan has roiled East Hampton. Last month, parents and teachers crowded a school board meeting to cheer the proposal. The op-ed pages of The East Hampton Star overflowed with letters, many of them calling the plan heavy-handed and invasive.
Wendy Hall, the school board president, said the seven-member board would probably approve the plan at a meeting in early April. She called the plan gutsy and said it was one of several efforts the district had undertaken to restrict student drinking.
The proposal has forced students, teachers and parents to focus on drinking in East Hampton. The high school is a drab, boxy building set among the town's cedar-shingled homes. It spends $16,000 per student per year, and 80 percent of its 1,000 students graduate with a Regents diploma. Right now, students are preparing for spring break and Advanced Placement Tests, but the breath analyzer plan is what really drives conversation, residents said.
Daniel Otto, a senior at East Hampton High, mulled it over one night in his kitchen, as he sipped Coors Light. It was Thirsty Thursday, the night he and a few friends play poker and drink. Mr. Otto said the plan was ridiculous.
"I think they're trying to fix a problem they can't fix," he said. "Everybody drinks. It's the way East Hampton kids are."
Claudia Pilato Maietta, the president of the Parent Teacher Student Association, said the breath analyzer proposal had come after a rash of complaints about student drinking. In addition to complaints about drinking at pep rallies and at a beach at lunch, there was one complaint in October from a parent who e-mailed the principal photos of East Hampton students drinking at parties. Officials alerted the students' parents, and suspended some of the students from extracurricular activities.
Kevin Flaherty, a senior in the pictures who was not among those drinking, said that the incident had helped pave the way for the testing, which he called an over-reaction. "I know the whole senior class," he said, "and no one drinks at school."
He and other students expressed concern that students with past problems would be targeted and those who were zany, tired or rowdy would be misjudged as being drunk.
In Indiana, at Penn High School in Mishawaka, which has a similar policy, the principal was forced to apologize to a student who had been pulled out of class by a police officer last year and given three breath tests, all of which were negative.
But school officials in East Hampton insist they would use the tests fairly and discreetly. Scott Farina, the principal, said the school would call parents before giving the test, and would make sure students were safe if the results came out positive.
"This is just one way that we're trying to be proactive," he said.
One of the few students unfazed by the proposal was James Westfall, a senior, who said he had smuggled alcohol to school in a Gatorade bottle just before Christmas vacation. He was caught that day by school officials, he said, even without a breath analyzer, and said the school should have carte blanche to keep students from drinking.
"They're trying to keep it out of school," he said. "They're right to do that."