School faces breathalyzer backlash

/ 7 June 2012 / jennifer

Amy Pearson, Winona Daily News, June 7, 2012 –

St. Charles students given breath test when some appear drunk at graduation rehearsal

The senior class at St. Charles High School late last week took one final test that’s rarely administered in schools — a breathalyzer — after staff members noticed a group of students at the school’s graduation rehearsal who appeared to be drunk.

District superintendent Mark Roubinek declined this week to specify how many students were found Friday with alcohol in their systems but said the number was in the “double digits.”

“It wasn’t just one or two,” he said. “It was a larger number.”

The decision to test the class of about 74 students — one that has infuriated some parents, who believe the action violated the rights of students — is rare in the area.

Cochrane-Fountain City superintendent Tom Hiebert said his district hasn’t used breath tests on students in the four years he’s been with the school, though he added that he also hasn’t faced a situation similar to the one in St. Charles.

“I’m not saying that we never ever would do that, but it sure hasn’t been talked about,” Hiebert said. “As long as we find it unnecessary, we aren’t going to step into that arena.”

Winona Area Public Schools superintendent Scott Hannon also said District 861 has not used breath tests in school and likely won’t in the future. He said testing an entire class in Winona, where the size of the student body is much larger than in

St. Charles, likely wouldn’t be practical.

When area schools have used the tests, it’s been sparingly and on only a handful of students.

Rushford-Peterson superintendent Chuck Ehler said in the past three years, his district has made a joint decision with law enforcement to administer, at most, three breath tests on individuals who appeared to have been under the influence of alcohol. None of those three tests took place during a graduation rehearsal, he said.

Roubinek said the decision to submit the class to the tests was made by the St. Charles Police Department after school officials noticed some of the students appeared drunk and then called officers to the school.

St. Charles Police Chief Bill Eckles declined to comment earlier this week and directed all questions to Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman, who is reviewing the incident.

Sonneman was unable to confirm if the decision to administer the tests was one made by police, and declined to say if any students would face legal ramifications.

Sonneman said she hoped to know more later this week, including if any charges would be filed against any students, after she reviews all police documents.

“It’s in the normal course of the investigation,” she said.

Roubinek said he has received a few letters and phone calls from parents who disapprove of the students being subjected to the breath tests, but that he also has heard from many community members supportive of the action.

“I think there was some rumor out that police were waiting for students, and that was absolutely not the case,” Roubinek said.

Roubinek said the district was concerned about students who were intoxicated driving home after rehearsal, and that “consequences were administered” to the students who had alcohol in their systems. He declined to comment on what the consequences were, but confirmed that everyone tested graduated Saturday.

“We felt like our responsibility was student safety,” Roubinek said. “We did not want kids driving if we had a strong suspicion that they were under the influence at school that morning.”

Roubinek said he is unsure if any students in the future will have to take breath tests.

“That is very difficult to say,” Roubinek said. “This was kind of a unique situation.”