Although St. Viator High School has been conducting random drug testing for several years, the technology that allows scientists to determine how much alcohol a student has consumed in the past 90 days is fairly new.
Psychemedrics Corp., the Massachusetts-based company used by St. Viator, rolled out the alcohol testing technology just last month, said George Elder, company vice president.
St. Viator tests all students at the beginning of the school year and will start random drug and alcohol testing for 10 to 20 students a week a few weeks later. Psychemedrics uses a computer program to randomize students by ID number. Students can be selected more than once in a school year for testing, Elder said.
A school employee, such as a school nurse, will take 50 milligrams, or about 60 hairs, from the back of the student's head where it will be less noticeable, Elder said. He said humans typically shed more than 100 hairs in a day so the hair test sample is usually undetectable.
The samples are sent overnight to the Psychemedrics lab in Los Angeles where the hair is washed to ensure students haven't used a chemical to try to alter the test, Elder said.
"Hair testing is the most accurate; you can't beat it," Elder said. "Urine testing is the most commonly used test in the country, but there are many ways to beat a urine test. There's no way to beat a hair test."
For students who may think shaving their head is a way to escape the test, Psychemedrics can also get accurate results using body hair from the leg or arm.
The hair is tested for alcohol and illegal drugs including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, prescription opiates, methamphetamine and ecstasy.
"Anything you put in your body metabolizes in the bloodstream and feeds the hair," Elder said. "The particles of that are trapped in the cortex of the hair forever so we can see what is used and what amount someone is using."
He said hair tests are more accurate because some drugs are eliminated from the urine or the bloodstream after a short period of time, but the residue will stay in the hair much longer.
The alcohol test results are given on a graded scale from 5 to 30, with 5 meaning someone has had an average of 2-3 drinks a week over the three month period and 30 meaning someone has had 4-5 drinks a day each day over three months, he said.
"Communion wine won't show up, a glass of champagne at your sister's wedding won't show up," Elder said.
"But binge drinking is a problem with young people in this country and this will measure that."
Test results are sent back to the school within with five business days. It's up to the school to decide how to handle discipline or counseling from there.
"This is not about 'gotcha,' it's about giving kids a strong reason to make a better choice," Elder said.
St. Viator Principal the Rev. Corey Brost has said that after a first positive test will result in a meeting between the student, a school counselor, an administrator and parents, but no discipline.
Students who test positive will be required to pay for a second test 90 days later and a second positive test will result in discipline, which officials say will be handled on a case-by-case basis, but could include expulsion.
Elder said St. Viator was one of the first schools to adopt alcohol testing, but that more are joining in quickly. He said he is in talks with another Chicago-area school interested in alcohol screenings.
Elder would not comment on how much the drug and alcohol program costs, but he said it is "reasonable."