The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday gave public school officials authority, with few limits, to order mandatory surprise drug tests of students - starting with athletes but potentially going further.
By a 6-3 vote, the court upheld an Oregon school district’s rule requiring mandatory random urine screening for any student who wants to play a team sport, even when officials have no reason to believe the student uses drugs.
“The effects of a drug-infested school are visited not just upon the users, but upon the entire student body and faculty, as the educational process is disrupted,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said the decision means millions of athletes will be subject to demeaning searches, whether they are suspected of drug use or not.
“Intrusive blanket searches of schoolchildren, most of whom are innocent, … are not part of any traditional school function of which I am aware,” O’Connor wrote.
Monday’s ruling seems likely to have its strongest effect on millions of athletes among the nation’s public-school children. But depending on how lower-court judges interpret the decision, school officials might wind up with permission to order drug screening of many more students to deal with a perceived drug problem.
The decision, the first the court has issued in six years on the legality of drug testing, broke new ground. Never before had the court authorized official intrusion into bodily privacy, without any suspicion, if the intrusion was not justified by work-related duties or public safety. Random tests for police, firefighters, airline and railroad crews, and for prison inmates, have become common.
The ruling will not affect state colleges and universities.
President Clinton applauded the drug-testing ruling, saying it “sends exactly the right message to parents and students: Drug use will not be tolerated in our schools.”
But Steven Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union said the ruling tells young Americans “they are second-class citizens who are not entitled to protections of the Bill of Rights.”
Of the three main factors the Scalia opinion cited to justify the mandatory random testing at issue, two seem to justify school drug tests that go beyond student athletes: First, the students involved are minors, and, second, they are required to attend school and while there are under administrators’ control as temporary stand-ins for the parents.
The third factor cited seems to support tests only for athletes: Students volunteer to join teams, submit to physical exams, put up with “communal undress” in school locker rooms and act frequently as “role models” for other students.
Under the Oregon policy, students are tested at the start of each season and then at random intervals throughout the season. Each boy selected produces a sample at a urinal, as a male monitor stands behind him. Girls are allowed to go into a bathroom stall, Scalia’s opinion notes, so that they can be heard but not observed.
In a scathing dissent, O’Connor - joined by John Paul Stevens and David H. Souter - castigated the majority.
The court, she said, had deprived students of “the Fourth Amendment’s … most basic … protection: its strong preference for an individualized suspicion requirement.”
O’Connor said one of the most eloquent reasons against random drug-testing of student athletes was in the testimony of the 12-year-old involved in the case, James Acton of Vernonia, Ore. Vernonia is a logging town of 3,000 about 35 miles northwest of Portland.
Acton, who refused random testing as a condition for playing football in the seventh grade, was asked on the witness stand in a lower court why he had refused.
His reply: “Because I feel that they have no reason to think I was taking drugs.”
James’ mother, Judy, said the family was disappointed in Monday’s ruling. James, now 16, is going to computer camp this summer and probably will not play school sports, she said.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SPOKANE’S REACTION TO RULING Ryan O’Connell-Elston, who is going to be a senior at Shadle Park High School, favors Monday’s Supreme Court decision. “In a school environment, it’s good to find out which students are using drugs and take the appropriate action,” he said. “I think the only people who should be worried are those using drugs,” he said. David Anthony, who also will be a senior at Shadle Park next school year, said he thinks drug testing for students is a double standard. “It is sort of saying civil rights are applicable to adults, but not to kids,” he said. Nancy Cartwright, a West Valley High School teacher, said she’s discussed the issue with an honors humanities class and found many students favored drug testing. “The kids who are in the honors program see their friends bottoming out before they even go to college,” she said. Cartwright said students whose tests are positive should be retested and receive help if they have a drug problem. “Surely, you’re not going destroy a student’s reputation and whole athletic future on one test.”