An Illinois high school plans to randomly snip students' hair throughout the coming school year so it can be tested to see if the kids have been drinking booze.
St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights has been conducting random drug tests since 2007, but will add alcohol in the fall.
"At the beginning of the year, there's drug testing for everyone," Parents' Club president Kathy Loy said. "And then throughout the year, students are randomly picked, through a computerized system using their student ID numbers, and those students are tested again for drugs. The alcohol testing will be done through those random samples only."
Psychemedics Corp. of Acton, Mass., is managing the testing for St. Viator. Company officials say the process is simple: Snip off 50 milligrams of hair (about the thickness of pencil lead), and send it in to the lab.
"Particles of the drug or alcohol get trapped in the cortex of the shaft of the hair, so we test that and get back to the school in a short turnaround," said George B. Elder, the company's vice president of schools and colleges. "We can pick up on levels as low as two to three drinks a week on average for up to three months."
If a student tests positive for alcohol use, there could be consequences, but not immediately. Loy says St. Viator is trying to work with students, rather than against them.
"The first time, they are brought into the counselor's office and given counseling, and they'll be tested again in 90 days," Loy said.
She explained that it takes 90 days for the previous drug and/or alcohol use to clear itself out of the hair particles. If a second test also yields positive results, the student will face disciplinary action.
Sgt. Rich Sterando of the Arlington Heights police said the school has no legal obligation to report the test results to authorities.
Psychemedics' Elder says alcohol hair testing is a fairly new development. It only started the service about a month ago.
"People are really warming up to this new possibility -- this new tool -- that is going to help our kids make good decisions and help the kids who are already in trouble," Elder said.
Only private institutions like the Roman Catholic St. Viator can test all their students for drugs and alcohol. Edwin Yohnka of the ACLU of Illinois said public schools are only permitted to test students who are in extracurricular activities, and he says the testing isn't particularly lucrative.
"We have seen public schools adopt these wide testing programs [for extracurricular activities] in the Chicago area, but they often drop the program after a few months because these testing programs are so expensive to operate, while yielding no real tangible results," Yohnka said.
Psychemedics wouldn't comment on the cost of the testing, and St. Viator did not return calls for comment.
But Loy, the Parents' Club president, is happy with the school's new policy. "I give St. Viator's credit for addressing an issue that needs to be addressed and for being proactive to help the kids be safe," she said.
And Psychemedics' Elder says such testing is crucial, adding "we don't want our kids and our future leaders to go down this path. Period."
Only a handful of schools test for alcohol, he said, but Psychemedics is "just now getting the word to hundreds of schools and the response is strong."