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The students at North Toronto Collegiate Institute were excited about the first dance of the school year. It was a chance to show off their new clothes and their new moves.

But instead, the dance floor turned into a scene of alcohol abuse and ecstasy consumption -- forcing the school's new principal to phone 911 and later to send a grim e-mail to parents.

"Some students were so severely impaired and their health in danger, they were sent to the hospital with paramedics," North Toronto principal Joel Gorenkoff wrote in the e-mail on Monday.

"In my 10 years as a school administrator, I have never seen such a blatant disregard for the reputation of a school, for other students and for these students themselves," he continued, indicating that teenagers had either been drinking or had probably taken ecstasy.

These days, Mr. Gorenkoff's concerns are shared by other high-school principals, many of whom are grappling with what to do when students arrive at a dance drunk or high. Some schools have students blow into breath-analysis machines to check for alcohol before handing over their tickets.

Others are opting for afternoon dances to lower the risk of alcohol and drugs making their way to the party. And one principal gathers students in the auditorium two days before the big event to lay down the rules.

But are these measures enough?

Andrew Murie, chief executive officer of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada, is not so sure that schools are doing all they can to prevent alcohol abuse and drug use.

"It's just like drinking and driving. If the population knows that the likelihood of getting caught is high, they're less likely to condone the activity. And that's the message schools should be sending," said Mr. Murie, who has two children attending a Mississauga high school.

The incident at North Toronto Collegiate speaks volumes about how weak the warnings still are, he said.

About 350 tickets were sold to last Friday night's dance, held at the Toronto Hungarian House on St. Clair Avenue West because the school gym is too small. Students were checked at the door by school-board security. Some were caught and their parents were called to pick them up. Others, who drank or took drugs before the event, made it through, only to have the substances take effect once they made it on the dance floor.

All told, there were about a dozen students who were sent home or taken to the hospital.

Mr. Gorenkoff said that although the students are doing fine, he has never faced an incident as severe as this as a school administrator. "This was not a proud moment," he said in an interview. "In fact, the kids that were impaired are honour-roll students, athletes, musicians. They are all-round wonderful kids and it's unfortunate that we had to see them in this sort of situation."

In the meantime, he said, the future of such events is left uncertain.

Indeed, many principals are wrestling with whether to continue the high-school dance, especially because of the liability that comes attached to drug abuse and underaged drinking.

"I think . . . principals may not be willing to take that responsibility," said Karl Sprogis, chairman of the Toronto School Administrators' Association. "I think if youngsters more and more show signs of alcohol or drug abuse at dances, I think the solution is that you're not going to have as many dances."

At the Toronto District School Board, as well as other school districts, there is no policy to guard against substance abuse at school dances. Principals are left to develop their own strategies. A spokesman for Mississauga-based Alcohol Countermeasure Systems Corp. said it has sold breath analyzers to schools in the Toronto area. "It's certainly a tool that can be considered by principals," Mr. Sprogis said.

But Roger Dale, principal of Kipling Collegiate Institute, cringes at the idea of using the breath-testing technology. For him, it's a matter of trusting his students to do the right thing. (However, there are usually two off-duty police officers at the door when the school hosts an evening dance.)

One of the school's methods of alcohol and drug prevention is to gather students in the auditorium two days before the dance and warn them of the consequences. Mr. Dale is not so naive as to think that this will stop students from drinking or getting high before a school dance. "All the best and most careful preparation in the world, you can still have a group of kids show up totally inebriated," he said.

To that end, some schools have done away with evening dances, opting instead to hold them during the school day. Allison Clinton, a superintendent of education at the Peel District School Board and a former principal at Rick Hansen Secondary School, said she used to have dances in the afternoon, and parents would come by to pick up their children around 6 p.m. That way, students don't have time between the school day and the event to get into any mischief, she said. "It is much easier to monitor," Ms. Clinton said. "It is a safety thing."

Mr. Gorenkoff is still in his first year at North Toronto Collegiate, and he is considering his next steps. He has warned those involved of the consequences that will follow: suspension and a ban from field trips and extracurricular activities.

"Are we going to have a similar dance? I don't know at this point," Mr. Gorenkoff said. "The fact is, kids will drink, kids will get in fights, kids will do things. I think you have to address [whether we're]doing enough in terms of making them aware of school rules, aware of drug awareness, alcohol awareness.

"Before I have another dance, I want to be sure."

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