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When Is School Drug Testing Legal?

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. | Last updated on

Introduced in the late 1980's as part of the war on drugs, school drug testing has become commonplace in public schools across the country. Still, some think school drug testing polices go too far and violate a student's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Though a perfectly reasonable assertion, it is incorrect. The U.S. Supreme Court has articulated three ways in which drug testing does not violate the constitutional rights of students who attend public junior high and high schools.

The first of these ways involves student athletes. In the 1995 case of Vernonia v. Acton, the Supreme Court gave schools the right to subject student athletes to mandatory suspicionless drug tests. This means that student athletes can be forced to submit to a drug test even if there is no reason to suggest that he or she has ingested an illegal substance.

In response to Vernonia, schools began to randomly drug test all students that participate in extracurricular activities, such as choir and debate. In the 2002 case of Board of Education v. Earls, the Supreme Court upheld this practice. Schools can randomly drug test students who participate in school-sponsored extracurricular activities.

Students who do not participate in athletics or other activities may also be subjected to school drug testing. In the 1985 case of New Jersey v. T.L.O., the Court ruled that schools do not need to have probable cause to search students. Instead, they must only have reasonable suspicion that the student has engaged in illegal activity. As such, all students must submit to a drug test when the school has reasonable suspicion that he or she is using drugs.

Keep in mind that this is only federal law. The legality of school drug testing also depends on state and local laws. And as it stands, state courts seem to be much more skeptical of the practice than is the U.S. Supreme Court.

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