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Board of Education, School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County vs. Earls, Lindsay, et al. (2001)

Schools, Drug Testing, and Privacy

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How much latitude does a public school have in restricting a student's rights? Can schools force all students to submit to random drug testing merely as a condition of attendance? Can they force all students who participate in activities like band or soccer to submit to random drug testing?


Background Information

In 1998 the public school district in Tecumseh, Oklahoma instituted the "Student Activities Drug Testing Policy," according to which students wishing to participate in extracurricular activities were required to submit to random drug testing through the year. Activities covered by this rule were band, choir, color guard, Future Farmers of America, Future Homemakers of America and the school's athletic and academic teams. Failure to submit to such testing meant being prohibited from participation.

In 1999, Lindsay Earls, a member the choir, the marching band, and the academic team, and Daniel James, who wanted to join the academic team, challenged the drug testing policy. According to them, the 4th Amendment protected them against suspicionless, mandatory urinalysis and that the school district had no demonstrated need to override that protection. Thus, they argued, the random drug testing was unconstitutional.

Court Decision

A federal court decided in favor of the school district, but the 10th Circuit Court reversed this and decided in favor of the students. The Court ruled, first, that the students did indeed have protection under the 4th Amendment:

...any district seeking to impose a random suspicionless drug testing policy as a condition to participation in a school activity must demonstrate that there is some identifiable drug abuse problem among a sufficient number of those subject to the testing, such that testing that group of students will actually redress its drug problem.

Thus, the school was required to meet a significant burden of proof and could not claim that they merely wanted to control drug use. It is true that schools are permitted greater latitude when dealing with students than the state is normally allowed when dealing with adults. However, that latitude is not limitless - when it comes to restricting students' basic liberties, a significant need must be demonstrated. In this case, however, no such need was revealed. Not only was there no drug problem among the students in these groups, but the district's own reports showed drug use to be declining. Moreover, the district could not demonstrate that these activities merited special supervision:

It is difficult to imagine how participants in vocal choir, or the academic team, or even the FHA are in physical danger if they compete in those activities while using drugs, any more than any student is at risk simply from using drugs.


The Supreme Court reversed this decision, finding that it was not unreasonable to force all students to submit to random drug testing as a condition of participating in school activities.

Significance

The Court found that mere participation in a school activity does not mean that the school has greater latitude in restricting a student's rights. Schools cannot force all students to submit to random drug testing merely as a condition of attendance, and they cannot do the same to students who participate in other activities like band or soccer.

However, federal courts have reached different ruling in these matters and the Supreme Court, which has accepted this particular case, will have the final decision.

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