The Supreme Court
Testing for Drugs
Drug-free schools are a slogan you see in many communities. Working to keep them that way is a constant challenge for school administrations. Some schools conduct periodic drug testing for students. One such program at Tecumseh, Oklahoma School District requires all middle and high school students who want to participate in extracurricular activities to submit to urinalysis testing for drugs.
The Fourth Amendment states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Two Tecumseh High School students and their parents sued the school saying this policy violated the students Fourth Amendment rights. The district court disagreed and ruled in favor of the school administrators. The students and parents then appealed the case to the circuit court, which ruled in their favor and agreed the policy did violate the Fourth Amendment.
The board of education appealed the circuit court decision to the Supreme Court in the case Board of Education v. Earls. The case was decided and on a split 5 to 4 decision. Justice Thomas wrote the opinion of the Court and was joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist, and Justices Scalia, Kennedy and Breyer. Justice O'Connor filed a dissent and was joined by Souter. Justice Ginsburg also wrote a dissent and was joined by Stevens, O'Connor and Souter.
In the majority opinion announced June 27, 2002, Thomas wrote:
“The ruling could not have come at a better time. Monitoring the Future, a national survey that tracks drug use among America's youth, reports that in 2001 more than half of all students had used illicit drugs by the time they finished high school. Moreover, the 2000 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse revealed that of the 4.5 million people age 12 and older who need drug treatment, 23 percent are teenagers.
—John P. Walters, Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Bush Administration
In deciding this case the majority used a precedent set in 1995—Vernonia School Dist. 47J v. Acton—in which a school district was granted the right to test all athletes for drugs because drug use could increase the risk of sports injury. In writing her dissent, Justice O'Connor did not believe the Tecumseh School District's drug testing program met the test:
Given how closely divided the court was on this issue, it is likely another case will wind its way to the Court in the future.