Searching Children's Bodies

The Supreme Court has moved from random drug testing of athletes, when the suspicion of drug use was high, to testing of all students in extracurricular activities, though suspicions are relatively low.

It seems a short step from there to mandatory drug testing of all students. This trend is regrettable. It opens the door to intrusive bodily exams of most, if not all children in a school on the theory that that would combat the general scourge of illegal drug use by youngsters. Any suspicion that drugs are a problem locally – a suspicion in most US communities – would be adequate to initiate such a program, under the court's ruling.

At least two problems with this approach come quickly to mind.

First, the drug testing is not solely a pragmatic measure on behalf of safety and law enforcement. It's also a civics lesson. A broad program like the Oklahoma one approved by the court tells students they're subject to a government search no matter how flimsy the suspicions.

The Fourth Amendment criterion for searches is reasonableness. One dissenting justice noted the need to "teach by example" by avoiding symbolic measures that diminish that constitutional protection.

Second, the question has to be asked whether there aren't less extreme measures that can accomplish a school district's goal of preventing drug use. Effective antidrug education, with parents actively recruited and involved, for example, might get across a message that reaches deeper than the suspicion-laden, coercive atmosphere of random drug tests.

The social concerns that drove the Oklahoma school's policy have to be carefully balanced against the need to instill in schoolchildren entering young adulthood a correct regard for privacy and constitutional rights.

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