February 17, 1998 in Nation/World

School Drug Tests Reach New Highs Miami School District Plans Voluntary Testing Of Students

Kim Cobb Houston Chronicle
 

When the afternoon bell rings at Coral Park High School here, 3,760 students flood the hallways with a day’s worth of pent-up energy, opening and slamming locker doors before they squeeze out of the crowded building.

How many of them are using drugs or alcohol? In a couple of months, Dade County Public Schools will have in place a pilot program for random drug testing that may provide some answers for their parents, and to a lesser degree, the school district.

Other schools around the country are watching closely as the county, the fourth-largest district in the country, attempts this controversial, voluntary drug testing policy. Miami parents must grant permission for their students to be tested, and students still will have the right to refuse.

School officials also are watching a small district in Rushville, Ind., where the high school is screening the majority of its population by requiring drug testing for students participating in extracurricular activities.

“This is still an evolving area; so a lot of different programs have to be tested in the courts until we can be sure what is allowed,” explained M. David Gelfand, professor of constitutional law at Tulane Law School in New Orleans.

Drug testing is becoming more common in private schools, where parents often seek out a program with stricter discipline and fewer liberties than public school. A parochial high school in Lafayette, La., made headlines in recent months with its decision to test students for drug use through hair analysis rather than the more typical and less costly urinalysis.

In public schools, though, the legal question becomes whether a student, who is there by right rather than choice, can be compelled to allow the search that is inherent in random drug testing. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects the individual against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Supreme Court’s last word on the subject was a 1995 ruling that allowed a school district to force student athletes to submit to random drug testing before they are allowed to participate in sports. The Indiana school district’s policy already has been approved by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, although the American Civil Liberties Union has requested a rehearing. The case may ultimately go to the Supreme Court.

In New Orleans, District Attorney Harry Connick backs school drug testing and his office is hosting a conference in April to pitch its merits to public and private school administrators. Mandatory drug testing is “not an unreasonable search under the circumstances,” Connick said.

Proponents like Connick cite the pursuit of safety and a healthy learning environment for all students as legal justification for testing public school students. Airport metal detectors are a similar example of searches made reasonable by circumstance, Connick said.

The 7th Circuit’s decision to uphold the Rushville, Ind., school district appears to expand the boundaries set by the Supreme Court in 1995, Connick said, and he calls it a step in the right direction. He says the Miami policy may be overly broad to pass constitutional muster, an opinion shared by other legal analysts, but he agrees with what the district is trying to do.

Miami-Dade parents who want their teenagers tested will have to sign up 9th through 12th-grade students for what amounts to a drug testing lottery. And when the student’s number is chosen and he or she is instructed to report for testing within 24 hours, the student still will have the right to refuse the test. The parents are notified of the refusal and in the case of testing, must accompany the child to the off-campus testing site.

The results of the individual tests will be made known only to the parents, though the school district will be notified how many students of the total tested positive.

Since individual results will be private, there will be no disciplinary action by the district against students who test positive.

“I see a flaw in their plan in that if you want to be tested you can volunteer, but if you don’t, there are no ramifications,” Connick said. “Hopefully they can work it out.”

But Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida ACLU, said, “When you see what got adopted (in Miami), the phrase comes to mind that a camel is a horse that was created by committee.”

The ACLU threatened to take the district to court over the original policy, which was proposed by 26-year-old school board member Renier Diaz de la Portilla, until the board incorporated the students’ right to refuse the tests.

Diaz del la Portilla concedes that the policy, scheduled for board ratification Feb. 18, is not as strong as he wanted, but he says it can be a tool to open communication between parents and children.


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