Supreme Court Case Challenges Drug Tests For School Athletes

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SEVENTH-GRADER James Acton wanted to play football at his Oregon school. But when he brought home a drug-test consent form, his parents balked. Wayne Acton felt it would be humiliating for his 12-year-old son to give a urine sample while the coach watched. The father also said the test would educate James to think he was guilty until proven innocent.

The school's answer: No football for James. Officials in the small Vernonia, Ore., district held to their testing policy, which was launched in the late 1980s in response to drug problems and lack of discipline.

Now the dispute in the isolated logging town has grown into a Supreme Court case -- argued today -- that may affect the lives of millions of students. It could open the door for drug testing in public schools nationwide for all students, not just athletes.

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The question is, does a school's demand for order and safety outweigh a minor's rights under the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure?

Legitimizing random searches would significantly expand the states' right to demand personal information. Vernonia School District v. Acton is the first important search case in a decade and one of the major high court cases of this term.

''If a drug problem is more important than the Fourth Amendment we should test everyone who drives a car,'' says the Acton's counsel, John Wittmayer. ''An automobile is more dangerous than a seventh-grade football game.''

''Schools are different,'' argues Gwendolyn Gregory of the National School Boards association, which filed a friend of the court brief for Vernonia. ''In this case, the school tried every other means.''

In 1985 the court agreed that Fourth Amendment rights are lessened in the special relationship between minors and public schools. The court upheld the search of a 14-year-old girl's purse for cigarettes on the grounds that smoke in the bathroom provided ''reasonable suspicion.''

Vernonia would shift this criterion to allow random searches for all students. Current law allows such searches in cases involving adults responsible for the lives of others, such as train engineers or airplane pilots.

Vernonia opens the door to random searches in an area previously ruled out -- bodily fluids -- for ordinary citizens. Urine tests are considered one of the more intrusive forms of drug testing.

Still, some analysts feel the high court is hearing Vernonia today to give more latitude to schools. ''I think it is very possible the court will support the district,'' says Alan Raphael, a law professor at the Chicago School of Law. ''There's an emphasis on drug prevention out there.''

''It's easy to be academic and sit in an office and talk about rights of kids,'' says Steven Fulton, who filed a friend of the court brief for the Alliance for Rights and Responsibilites, a Washington lobby group.

''But in the schools,'' he adds, ''teachers and administrators deal with drugs every day, and with the problems associated with them.''

Other legal experts are more suspicious. Vernonia's argument that it is protecting student athletes from injury seems to many an excuse to create an overall drug policy governing behavior. Athletes were chosen to be tested because more than half of the school's 690 students -- and its popular leaders -- played sports.

To date, the district concedes that there has not been a single instance of a drug-related sports injury. Vernonia's lawyer will argue that drug testing seemed to lessen the rowdy behavior in the school, especially in student clubs such as the ''Big Elks,'' whose members ''bugle'' (shout) in the halls and ''butt'' heads. The number of student disciplinary referrals has dropped.

Yet, as Texas Tech law professor Chuck Bubany argues, ''if you make the threat large enough, you can justify just about anything. There is drug hysteria. But does hysteria justify carte blanche to school officials?''

Vernonia's case is joined by nine friends of the court briefs, including the US Solicitor General, the National League of Cities, and the Institute for a Drug-Free Workplace.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the Actons, worries that other school districts may see Vernonia's claims that drug testing improves behavior and begin their own urine sampling.

Acton's lawyer will focus in part on Vernonia's claims of success, arguing that the testimony of a drug ''epidemic'' in Vernonia does not exist.

Only one teacher has seen students taking drugs. The wrestling coach said he suspected drug abuse one time when a student did not ''react'' quickly enough.

Moreover, the urine sample does not test what school officials agree is an often abused drug in Vernonia -- alchohol. Nor does Vernonia test its athletes for another illegal drug, steroids.

Currently, the court has a four-point ''balance test'' on cases of search and seizure -- weighing government interest versus degree of intrusion.

Chicago professor Raphael says that Vernonia could provide a precedent for increased random drug testing of adultsif this balance is changed.

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