Tanya Lawler was taken aback. Her daughter, returning from West High's homecoming dance on Sept. 25, mentioned that students were randomly selected to take a breath test as they arrived, to see if they'd been drinking.
While her daughter was not tested, Lawler considers this a "violation of Fourth Amendment rights" because officials lacked probable cause to suspect the people being tested. Her son attended La Follette's homecoming dance, held the same night, and reported that no testing was done there.
In fact, West is the only high school in Madison that has a formal written policy (PDF) regarding student dances, and the only one that randomly tests students as they enter using "a passive alcohol detection device." Students and a parent must sign a form agreeing to these rules.
Lawler, who doesn't remember this form, advised her daughter to refuse this test. "I would rather forfeit the price of the ticket and have her call me. I'd say, 'No, they're not going to violate your rights.'"
Ed Holmes, the principal at West, says the dance policy and random tests were recommended by a committee and adopted in 2007, after a rash of imbibing prompted the cancellation of dances the year before. It seems to have worked; at the September dance, not a single West student was nabbed for drinking. Says Holmes, "It was a problem, and it's no longer a problem."
School district spokesman Ken Syke says using the device - a "portable breath tester," not an actual breathalyzer - is a "preventive measure" that West has opted to employ. Holmes is unaware of any complaints, from students or parents.
Stacy Harbaugh of the ACLU's Madison office says random testing of students coming to extracurricular activities is permitted, so long as it's truly random and the policy was prompted by particular concerns.
But Lawler wonders about the wisdom of random testing versus testing for cause: "How do they know they aren't missing a student who is under the influence?" Holmes and assistant principal Beth Thompson say the school also keeps a close eye on students' behavior.
Other Madison high schools - all of which have three formal dances per year - avoid random tests. Bruce Dahmen, principal of Memorial, says his school has portable alcohol testing devices but uses them only if it has reason to believe a student is under the influence. And even then the first step would be to contact the student's parents.
East High also singles out students only for cause. "If we feel somebody is impaired," says principal Mary Kelley, "we'll ask a series of questions." A Madison police officer is on hand with a breathalyzer. Kelley says alcohol at dances has not been big problem at East, which holds its homecoming dance this Saturday, Oct. 16. She was "very impressed" at how few students were busted for drinking - "maybe two" of 700 - at last year's homecoming.
At Edgewood, too, says assistant principal Shannon McDonough, "there'd have to be a reason for concern" before the school would ask a student to use an alcohol-detection device. Staff interact with each student on arrival, and monitor behavior. But alcohol use at Edgewood dances, attests McDonough, hasn't been an issue: "It seems to me the culture is coming back to good, clean, sober fun."
A greater concern for Edgewood is making sure the music is appropriate - the school has a list of "approved music" - and the dances not too risqué. The school, says McDonough, has a "zero-tolerance rule for grinding."
Joe Gothard, principal at La Follette, says the school has "had students in the past come [to dances] under the influence, and we've dealt with it," by monitoring behavior. But he's more bothered by "sexually suggestive" dancing involving contact between "intimate parts of one's body." Rules against this are rigorously enforced, because Gothard would "never want a student to feel uncomfortable at a dance."
Footnote: So did Principal Gothard get to meet Barack Obama during the president's surprise visit to La Follette on Sept. 28? Actually not.
After Obama's visit to Madison last fall, Gothard says "I told my kids that if the president ever came back, I'd take them to see him." And thus it happened that Gothard "was down at Bascom Hill when I got the call" saying Obama was coming to La Follette.
But he and his kids enjoyed the event. The day was beautiful, the orator above average.
New news is good news
It's fashionable these days to lament the demise of state government reporting, especially investigative stories. And yes, shrinking newsroom budgets have trimmed the size of the press corps assigned to cover state government.
Yet in Wisconsin, the reporters who remain continue to do outstanding work, as coverage of the Ken Kratz scandal attested. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin State Journal and Associated Press have topnotch teams covering the statehouse (although the imminent departure to Iowa of the AP's Ryan Foley, who broke the Kratz story, will be keenly felt).
Now there's a new kid on the block: The Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, a nonprofit based in Bismarck, N.D., plans to open a Wisconsin bureau, with an initial hire of a news reporter and investigative reporter. It's part of an effort to set up news bureaus in statehouses throughout the land, generating stories for the web that can be used freely by other media. (One of the group's mottos is "steal our stuff.")
Center president Jason Stverak says the goal is to address "the shrinking of the legacy media" by providing well-done, original content, especially stories that might otherwise fall through the cracks.
Andy Hall of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, which has a similar mission, notes that his group discloses its financial backers and the Franklin Center does not. Having this information, he says, puts the public "in a better position to evaluate the coverage and its credibility."
Stverak's résumé includes stints as regional field director for the pro-free-market Sam Adams Alliance and executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party. But he says the Franklin Center has no political agenda beyond its belief "in as much freedom of information as possible."
Stories generated by these bureaus, he says, have been picked up by outlets "from Fox News to CNN to MSNBC." One of the first Franklin Center bureaus, Illinois Statehouse News, is headed by Scott Reeder, a respected veteran member of the Illinois press corps.
The Wisconsin bureau will be based in Madison and could be running within a month. Hall says that "increased coverage of the state Capitol is a good thing," and that the Franklin Center's work will "be judged on its merits."
UW: All news is good news?
The UW-Madison is crowing about a new study of university news coverage that says the university was mentioned 6,995 times in New York Times articles between 1945 and 2005. That ranks the UW-Madison 19th among U.S. universities and second among Big Ten schools.
"We're delighted to see that UW-Madison has ranked so highly," says UW-Madison spokeswoman Amy Toburen in a press release. "It's a reflection of the consistent quality of our work in the laboratory, our teaching in the classroom and our public service mission."
But wait. Wouldn't any such tally include negative mentions, like the 1970 bombing of Sterling Hall? Toburen concedes the point ("I'm sure it all goes in there") but doesn't think this changes the larger picture. "I think if you looked at overall mentions, they'd be positive."
Readers can do their own searches of the New York Times Article Archive. Toburen also cites the "UW in the News" section of the university's website, wisc.edu. This tracks all sorts of articles, local and national, including a recent one from the Times on "free radicals" - the kind released by exercise, not the kind that blow up buildings.