WASHINGTON — LIKE many young American males, James Acton had dreams of gridiron glory. But in the fall of 1991, when he tried out for the seventh-grade football team in his Vernonia, Ore., school district, he found out that he would have to pass a mandatory drug test before he could don pads and rush onto the field against interscholastic rivals.
The school board said it was trying to quash a drug epidemic among school children. James said the drug test was an infringement on his rights - and he and his parents sued. The result is a legal scrap that has now risen all the way to the Super Bowl of United States jurisprudence, the Supreme Court.
By taking up the Vernonia School District v. Acton case, Supreme-Court justices this week gave notice that they intend to deliver some answers to long-open questions about the legality of drug tests, the rights of middle- and high-school students, and associated Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure issues.
``That this will have a major impact on this area of the law seems to be to be clear,'' says Peter Meyers, a George Washington University professor who teaches a course on drugs and the law.
Vernonia, a small logging community northwest of Portland, began its drug-testing program in 1989 because educators believed drug and alcohol abuse had ``invaded'' the school district's sports programs, according to the district's court petition. Less-drastic measures such as antidrug education programs had been tried, to little effect.
What was worse, many top athletes appeared to be at the center of a growing drug culture in the school. Administrators feared that this corruption ``would have a significant poisoning impact on the broader student population, including the younger and more impressionable elementary-school students,'' the court petition said.
The test policy required all student athletes, male and female, to undergo urinalysis for a wide range of illegal drugs at the beginning of their sports season. Random testing continued through the year.
If one test was positive, athletes were required to attend drug-treatment programs; subsequent failures were punishable by suspension from sports.
By all accounts, James Acton was a class act, a smart kid, and never gave any suspicion that he used drugs. He thought his exemplary school record was enough evidence of his integrity. When school authorities didn't accept that view, he and his parents took the legal option. Eventually, the San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals took his side, saying the policy violated Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable government searches.
In the past, the Supreme Court has indicated that it will uphold drug-test programs of government workers when public safety is an issue.
In 1989, the Court held that railway workers could be forced to take tests after accidents and that some federal Drug Enforcement narcotics agents could themselves be required to undergo urinalysis.
But as Professor Meyers of George Washington University notes, these were narrow rulings in obviously compelling cases.
Since then a number of other cases have been percolating up from lower-court levels regarding the rights of Americans to refuse drug tests. Some colleges have had student-athlete drug-testing programs upheld by lower courts. But earlier this year the Supreme Court let pass without comment a Colorado Supreme Court decision finding University of Colorado drug tests an invasion of privacy.
While many universities have drug-test programs, few high schools do. The ruling on the Acton case will thus be an important one.