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School drug testing faces test in court

High court weighs tests for those in after-school activities.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2002


The US Supreme Court today will weigh how far public schools can go in imposing random drug tests on students who participate in extracurricular activities – from cheerleading to the Future Farmers of America.

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The case involves Lindsay Earls, who wanted to sing in the school choir, march in the school band, and compete on her school's academic team. Instead, the high school sophomore found herself in the girl's washroom with three faculty members listening intently outside a stall as she attempted to fill a plastic vial.

It was part of a policy adopted by the school board in Tecumseh, Okla., requiring that all students in grades 7 to 12 seeking to participate in school activities submit to random drug tests.

To Ms. Earls, now a freshman at Dartmouth College, the process was degrading and insulting. To the school board, it is an effective deterrent that helps teens overcome peer pressure to use drugs.

Today, the high court will consider whether what happened to Earls was a violation of her constitutional right to privacy, or an acceptable effort by school officials to combat the scourge of illegal drug use among America's youths.

"The best way to keep kids away from drugs is to get them involved in the choir and the band and these other activities. You don't want to set up obstacles to these activities, and that is what the school is doing," says Graham Boyd, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, who is arguing the case on behalf of Ms. Earls.

Lawyers for the school board counter that school officials have determined that there is a drug problem in the Tecumseh schools and that random testing is an appropriate tool to address it.

"Tecumseh has the authority and responsibility, as the tutor and guardian of its students, to ensure that the health and safety of its children are safeguarded at all times while they are in the custody of school officials," says the brief of Linda Maria Meoli, an Oklahoma City lawyer with the Center for Education Law, which is representing the school district.

The issue is significant because a decision upholding the Tecumseh policy could open the door for blanket drug tests for virtually all 24 million public secondary-school students across the country. On the other hand, a decision striking down the Tecumseh policy could help strengthen the privacy rights of public-school students by clarifying the limits of antidrug policies adopted by school officials.

At the center of the case is whether random drug tests must be aimed at a specific group of students deemed to be at a higher risk of drug use, or whether the potential deterrent effect of such random drug tests is enough to justify applying the program across a broader population of students.

Courts are divided on the issue. State courts in Colorado, Indiana, and Pennsylvania have struck down random drug tests for those participating in extracurricular activities. Federal appeals-court panels in both the Seventh and Eighth Circuits have upheld similar programs.

'Hostile to' a blanket search

Mr. Boyd says America's Founding Fathers cherished privacy from intrusive government so much that they guaranteed it to all Americans through the Constitution's Fourth Amendment. "Throughout American history, the notion of a blanket search of any group is one that we have been very hostile to," he says.