South Portland school officials have canceled almost all high school dances this year because they say too many students are arriving drunk or under the influence of drugs.

Superintendent Ken Kunin and high school principal Ryan Caron made the announcement in a letter to parents and students Sept. 9. In the letter, Kunin, Caron and two police officials wrote that 40 percent of all alcohol-related incidents and 80 percent of other drug-related incidents during the last three years at South Portland High School have occurred at dances.

“After careful consideration, due to concern for student safety as it pertains to school dances, the administration has decided to reduce the number of dances at the high school level to two for the 2016-2017 school year: homecoming and senior prom,” the letter states.

The announcement coincides with a $625,000 federal award for a South Portland coalition that is working to prevent youth substance abuse. In both Cumberland and York counties, a 2015 statewide survey showed that 25 percent of students had used alcohol in the past 30 days. That figure was above the state average, and only a few counties – Knox, Sagahahoc, Aroostook and Hancock – had higher percentages.

Other Greater Portland high schools, including Yarmouth and Scarborough, have tried to curb underage drinking in the past by administering breath-alcohol tests at dances. Kunin said the school administration consulted with other area districts and found that many are dealing with the same problem.

“Most high schools in southern Maine have cut back on dances for the same reason, so we are not at all an outlier,” Kunin said in a telephone interview Saturday. “Really, it’s not a South Portland High School issue. It’s a high school issue. It’s a high school issue in Maine, it’s a high school issue nationally.”

South Portland High School usually hosts five or six dances each year, Kunin said. The administration consulted with the police department about its dance policies, and Police Chief Edward Googins and School Resource Officer Alfred Giusto co-signed the letter to parents and students. Kunin said local police see a higher-than-normal volume of calls related to underage drinking and substance abuse around dances. A call to the department Saturday was not returned.

“They told us, ‘Don’t have dances,’ ” Kunin said. “They see a real uptick in activity regarding the police before, during and after high school dances.”

Caron declined to talk about the change when reached by phone Saturday, and he did not respond to further requests for comment. Board of Education Chairman Richard Matthews responded in an email saying that he did not personally agree with the decision to cancel dances but that it is not the board’s decision. He added that he respects the administration’s decision.

South Portland High School has about 900 students; Kunin said about 500 students usually attend dances.

Students learned about the change in their classrooms during the first week of school, shortly before the letter went out to their families. Kunin said the response has been minimal but mixed. Some parents of graduated students have reached out to support the district’s decision, while others have expressed disappointment.

“They think it’s an overreaction, and they wish we weren’t taking the students’ fun away,” Kunin said. “I understand that, but again, our first concern is going to be student safety. We think we do a lot in and around school that is quite fun.”

Just last week, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy awarded SoPo Unite $625,000 to prevent youth substance abuse in the next five years, which will allow the organization to hire a director and combat drug and alcohol use among local teenagers. Community members representing the school department are part of that coalition.

At dances in particular, South Portland has already taken steps to discourage students from using alcohol and drugs, Kunin said. Students are required to sign a dance policy, and any outside guests need to be approved by school officials. School chaperons and police officers are present at dances, and any bags brought in are searched.

Other high schools have struggled with this same issue. Both Falmouth High School and Yarmouth High School started using Breathalyzers at school dances a few years ago. After several intoxicated teenagers attended a Yarmouth semiformal dance in 2011, students and school officials developed a policy to use the portable breath-testing equipment provided by the local police department. Scarborough High School also administers random alcohol breath testing at the beginning and during dances. Many schools have also banned suggestive dancing known as “grinding,”

Kunin said the South Portland school administration did not want its officials to administer Breathalyzers or require hundreds of guests to submit to a test from law enforcement.

“We just think that’s unmanageable,” Kunin said. “We’re in the business of educating students for their future, not in the business of running large dances.”

School dances are used as fundraisers for the prom, but the letter states the administration will work with class officers and advisers to find alternatives.

“School administrators will monitor the substance use incidents at school dances and will use that data in making decisions about future school dances at South Portland High School,” the letter states.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 9:40 a.m. on Sunday, September 18, 2016 to correct the name of the chairperson of the South Portland Board of Education and to include his reaction to the cancellation of dances.


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