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Drug Testing: Background Information

Drug use and substance abuse among students has become a major concern for many communities. School officials, parents, and guardians want to create a safe environment for students. This means keeping school free from drugs like alcohol, amphetamines, opiates, and more.

Mandatory drug testing in public schools is a relatively newer issue for the law. This was introduced during the late 1980s and expanded over the next decade. The practice of performing urinalyses is happening in a growing percentage of schools.

This article provides a brief overview of drug testing in schools.

Why Do Schools Test for Drugs?

Schools introduce drug testing programs for a few reasons. The board of education in different states has realized that drug abuse can harm students' health and their grades. Illegal drug crimes can also affect their future. By checking for individual drug use, schools hope to prevent broader substance use. They want to reduce the risk of it becoming a bigger problem.

The War on Drugs Campaign

School drug testing grew out of the so-called war on drugs. President Nixon first declared this public safety campaign in 1971.

Before the 1980s, citizens were rarely tested for drugs. Law enforcement officers performed these tests after having grounds for suspicion. Exceptions existed in a few areas, like college and pro athletes and prison inmates.

The drug war introduced several sweeping social changes. Among these was the idea of mandatory suspicionless testing in the workplace. This idea spread from the public to the private sector. The trend soon reached public high schools in a limited form. The form was testing student-athletes in the late 1980s.

Drug Testing and Student Rights

In the past, students and parents have argued that drug testing goes against their rights. They believed drug testing went against their privacy interests.

But, there have been important court cases that have shaped this area of law. In these cases, the courts said that schools can test students for drugs. They decided that the need to keep schools safe was more important than the students' privacy rights. However, there are still rules and protections to ensure these tests are done fairly.

However, the legal status of student drug testing is cloudy. In large part, this is due to dramatic changes following the 1995 Vernonia decision detailed below. School districts correctly saw the Supreme Court's decision as a green light, but some took the practice much further.

Not merely student-athletes but a range of student activities, such as band and choir, began requiring students to pass drug tests as a condition for eligibility. But some states, including Pennsylvania, have struck down suspicionless drug testing of public school students by claiming it violates the state constitution.

The Courts Shape School Drug Testing Requirements

Over the past few decades, both state courts and federal courts have ruled on drug testing cases. A few legal milestones stand out as historic points.

Case Law Defines When Schools Can Search Students

One such milestone is New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985). The U.S. Supreme Court defined students' reduced Fourth Amendment rights. It ruled that schools do not have to follow the customary requirements of having probable cause or a warrant to carry out searches. Instead, school authorities must follow only a simple standard based on "the dictates of reason and common sense."

Cases unrelated to schools also influenced when searches are legal. The Supreme's first landmark drug-testing ruling is one of these cases. It upheld the suspicionless drug-testing of railroad employees involved in accidents in Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives Ass'n (1989). The court held that the government has a compelling interest in public safety that overrides the Fourth Amendment rights of the employees.

National Treasury Employees Union v. Von Raab (1989) offered a second critical ruling on drug testing. The court upheld the suspicionless drug testing of U.S. Customs Service employees. These employees are in sensitive positions that involve extraordinary safety and national security hazards.

Drug Testing Requirements in Student Athletics

School sports became a focus of drug testing. Some drugs may affect the fairness of competitions among students or teams. Schools may also use sports participation as an incentive for students’ sobriety.

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of mandatory suspicionless drug testing of student-athletes in Vernonia v. Acton (1995). This decision applied the rulings from Skinner and Von Raab.

The court found that the government's interest in drug-free schools outweighed the student's Fourth Amendment rights. It approved a school's policy of random, suspicionless testing of student-athletes. In the wake of its landmark ruling, hundreds of school districts nationwide adopted similar policies.

Yet, not all states' laws allow suspicionless drug testing of student-athletes. Check your state laws and school policies to understand drug tests.

Courts Consider Drug Testing for Other Extracurriculars

Student drug testing expanded beyond athletics. Some schools began requiring testing for participation in other extracurricular activities.

A panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of such a school program in Todd v. Rush County Schools (1998). The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, letting the verdict stand.

In contrast, another circuit court disapproved of broad extracurricular drug testing. A panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a school drug policy in Earls v. Tecumseh (2001), holding that extracurricular testing went further than what is permitted under Vernonia. With the two circuits in obvious disagreement, the Supreme Court accepted the case for review in 2002.

Can Public Schools Require Drug Testing for All Students?

No, according to a federal judge in Texas. In Tannahill v. Lockney School District (2001), the court struck down what had been the nation's first school district policy requiring drug testing of all junior high school students. Drug use may otherwise conflict with the federal education requirement. After all, public school attendance is a basic right. 

At both the federal and state levels, the future of drug-testing policies is in question. In 2001, courts showed a trend toward rejecting student drug testing. More cases ended in verdicts for plaintiffs who challenged their school policies. Some viewed this as a shift in public attitudes. Yet, it was too early to tell what impact the cases would have on this developing area of law.

How Does School Drug Testing Work?

Usually, drug screening in schools involves urine testing. In this method, a student provides a urine sample. This sample is then checked for signs of drugs. This type of test is called urinalysis.

There are two main ways schools do these tests:

  • Random drug testing of students: Some students are randomly picked for the test. This means any student may be tested at any time, even if school officials don't believe they're using drugs.
  • Testing based on reasonable suspicion: If a school official thinks a student might be using drugs because of their behavior or other signs, they might ask the student to take a test. Drug-sniffing dogs have raised legal questions about reasonable suspicion, however.

Often, students participating in sports or other school activities are the ones tested. The idea is that students in these groups should set a good example for others. But in some places, any student can be tested.

What Happens if a Drug Test Shows Drug Use?

When there's a positive result, it means the test found signs of drugs in the student's system. But a positive test doesn't always mean the student will be punished. School boards want to help students, not just punish them. Students might be asked to join a program to help them stop using drugs or to see a counselor.

Getting Legal Help With Drug Testing in Schools

If students or their parents have concerns about drug testing in schools, they might consider getting legal help. Lawyers who know about education law can explain what the rules are and what rights students have. It's important for everyone to understand their rights and the reasons behind drug testing programs. Getting legal advice can provide clarity and guidance during confusing times.

Speak to an education lawyer about your potential case.

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