Students at a suburban Catholic high school will be taking a new test this year — one that’s supposed to indicate whether they’ve consumed alcohol.
Since 2007, St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights has used hair samples to test each of its 1,000 students for drugs in the fall and then conduct random screens during the rest of the school year. Starting in October, the school will also test for alcohol — and St. Viator officials believe they might be the first school in the state to take that step.
“As a Catholic institution, we’re morally obliged to do the best we can to help our kids grow,” said the Rev. Corey Brost, school president.
Private schools have broader legal authority to test students for illegal substances than their public counterparts. And while a few area public high schools do conduct drug testing, the practice is limited to teens in sports or other extracurricular activities. Yet even among private schools, testing students’ hair for alcohol use appears to be particularly rare.
The testing company, Massachusetts-based Psychemedics Corp., said St. Viator is among a handful nationwide using the company’s new hair test for alcohol. George Elder, a Psychemedics vice president, said he is in talks with another Chicago-area school district interested in using the alcohol screenings.
Only a few members of the National Association of Independent Schools test widely for alcohol, spokeswoman Myra McGovern said. Some have used Breathalyzers to test suspected students at school dances. But most member schools emphasize personal and community responsibility to minimize such problems.
“It’s not very common,” she said of alcohol testing. “The culture of the school comes out in the methods they choose.”
At St. Viator, students are notified of their mandatory testing appointments on the morning of the test, Brost said. At lunchtime, a school official snips off a sample of about 60 hairs from the crown of each chosen student’s head, Elder said.
The alcohol test measures ethyl glucuronide, or EtG, to indicate alcohol consumption in the previous three months, Elder said. He declined to discuss the company’s newly developed process for the test, but said it follows the guidelines of the World Health Organization.
The tests take about a week to process and are capable of indicating a minimum average consumption of two to three drinks per week, Elder said. The test won’t pick up on Communion wine or “a sip of Champagne at your sister’s wedding,” he said.
Students who test positive must attend a meeting with their parents, counselor and the school president. After 100 days, the student must pay about $85 for another test, and a second positive could lead to expulsion.
“We intervene in a therapeutic way, to help the student really look and see if there’s a serious problem here,” Brost said. “Part of the required intervention is for the student to be evaluated by a professional drug and alcohol abuse counselor.”
But Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, said schools are going far beyond their educational role to control students’ activities outside of class.
While acknowledging that private schools can in general mandate drug and alcohol tests at their own discretion, Yohnka said it’s “troubling” that students can lose their protection against unreasonable searches with no evidence they’ve had any alcohol.
“We have a mechanism for controlling the behavior of young people outside school — they’re called parents,” Yohnka said. “I don’t think we need for schools to be acting as uber-parents.”
Brost said he believes St. Viator has its community’s support, citing a parent survey that showed a majority approved of the alcohol test.
St. Viator parents “agree that we are going to be involved in their (children’s) lives in a lot more ways than just getting them into college,” he said. “We have not only a freedom to care about our kids in ways some people might find intrusive but we have the responsibility.”
Yohnka also noted that there have been disputes over the accuracy of testing hair for drug use and expected similar controversy over testing hair for alcohol.
The Society of Hair Testing, an industry association based in France that promotes international testing standards, recommends the results from hair tests for alcohol not be used in isolation but should be considered with other evidence.
Accuracy and false positives are concerns, said St. Viator parent Kathy Loy. But because the test is noninvasive, Loy said she still supports the expanded drug testing policy.
“I feel like they are a partner in raising my children,” she said. “If (my son) is hiding something from me, I’d like to know it.”