Texas duel: drug tests versus student rights

Like thousands of schoolchildren nationwide, the sixth-graders in this quiet town in the Texas panhandle are studying the US Constitution.

And while they may be more interested in Billboard's Top 100 than the Bill of Rights, that document has suddenly taken on deep resonance for the students at Lockney Junior High School.

The dusty farming community has become the first school in America to require drug testing for all its sixth-through 12th-graders. And in a battle between community pragmatism and democratic idealism, a local farmer has taken up a fight for the Fourth Amendment on behalf of his son - filing suit to block the testing. The legal battle is being closely watched by school boards across the US, who are trying to decide how far they can go to rid classrooms of meth and marijuana.

"They are sitting up there telling [my son] that these are your rights," says Larry Tannahill. "But then they're also sitting up there telling him, 'But we're going to take them away.' "

In what some believe could become a test case for the US Supreme Court, Mr. Tannahill, a fourth-generation farmer, filed a federal lawsuit last month charging the policy infringed his son Brady's Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search or seizure.

For their part, school officials say the drug-testing policy - considered the most stringent in the country - allows students to be educated in a safe, disciplined environment. No one is discriminated against because all students and teachers must take the test, officials add, and results remain confidential.

"It's a balancing act," says Austin, Texas, lawyer Don Henslee. "You have to balance protection of the children with their Fourth Amendment rights."

Mr. Henslee notes that in 1995, the Supreme Court upheld a drug-testing policy aimed at student athletes in the Vernonia, Ore., school district. Two years ago, a Chicago federal appeals court upheld mandatory testing of all students in an Indiana high school who participated in extracurricular activities.

The seven-member school board adopted its policy in January, after years of requests from parents to do something about the problem of students showing up to class high, Henslee says. Those pleas took on an air of urgency in 1998, when 12 of the town's 2,300 residents were indicted on drug-related felonies. Though all were adults, some of the suspects' customers were children.

"The parents were very concerned,'' Henslee says. "They asked the school district to implement this policy."

In mid-January, roughly 400 students were sent home with consent forms for their parents to sign. The form authorized the school to initially test all students for drugs, then 10 percent of students selected randomly each month. A refusal to sign the form, parents were told, would garner the same punishment as failing to pass the test: a 21-day suspension from extracurricular activities, three days in-school suspension, and three sessions of substance-abuse counseling.

"It aggravated me quite a bit," Tannahill says. "I didn't think seven people had the right to say what would happen with our children."

Sitting in his father's living room on the edge of Lockney, Tannahill, a thin man with an easy smile, says widespread support for the drug-testing policy has left him feeling somewhat ostracized.

In a town that has one stop light, no movie theater, and where the biggest ticket in town is school sporting events, Tannahill says he's become persona non grata for fighting the policy. Many community members see the testing as a needed tool to help children avoid drugs, and constitutional questions seem merely academic in the face of that threat.

Indeed, several adults and children alike rolled their eyes when asked one recent Saturday what they thought of Tannahill's stance. "He's going against the whole town, and people don't have any respect for him," says student Ashley Brock. "We just want to be proud that our school is drug-free."

The mistaken belief that drug testing eliminates drug use is a worrisome argument in favor of such policies, says Graham Boyd, head of the ACLU's Drug Policy Litigation Project and one of Tannahill's attorneys. "Studies show that the best way to keep students out of trouble is to involve them in extracurricular activities," Mr. Boyd says.

The policy in Lockney, he adds, is "unquestionably in violation of the Constitution,'' yet it is certainly "planting ideas in the minds of other school boards'' nationwide.

That's especially true in Texas, says Henslee, whose law firm represents about 300 school districts statewide. "To say that our phones have been ringing off the hook is an understatement," he says.

Drug testing is one of the hottest topics among the 3,000 members of the Virginia-based National School Boards Association, says Julie Underwood, general counsel.

While the association has not taken a position on the Lockney policy, Ms. Underwood says, "if I were a school district, I would be extremely cautious of going this far."

Meanwhile, the school board has agreed not to punish Brady - who says he's not at all bothered by the national attention his case has earned - until the court case is resolved. His father vows to take it as far as he can.

"I hate to see what's going on here,'' says Tannahill, who was born and raised in Lockney. "But if I give up now ... I'm not teaching my children what the Constitution means."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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