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unreasonable searches and seizures.
April 12, 2001
Web posted at: 9:29 a.m. EDT (1329 GMT)
(FINDLAW) -- The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled
recently that a Tecumseh, Oklahoma, high school could not
administer random drug tests to students who wanted to
participate in extracurricular activities -- even though the
school used the results to send drug users to treatment.
A student, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union,
challenged the tests on Fourth Amendment grounds, the right to
privacy and protection against unreasonable searches and
Although the legal issue is a legitimately close call, the
adversarial nature of the proceedings is troubling. If sending
kids to drug treatment is the right thing to do, are we being
overly concerned with their right to privacy?
The court and students' rights
The Tecumseh ruling must be read in light of two seminal U.S.
Supreme Court opinions on students' Fourth Amendment rights.
In the 1980s, in New Jersey v. T.L.O., the court held that the
Fourth Amendment applies when school officials search students
(drug testing is a search).
The court watered down its opinion, however, by noting that
the amendment's warrant and probable cause requirements can be
chucked in favor of a vague standard of reasonableness.
More recently, in Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, the
court allowed an Oregon school to test student athletes for
In addressing the Fourth Amendment issues, the court found
that student-athletes had a lesser expectation of privacy than
other students did, because the athletes subjected themselves
to physical exams, showered communally and so on.
Equally important, the court held, was the fact that the drug
testing policy was specifically not designed to serve up
toking tailbacks to the police: The test results went only to
school officials, and the consequence of positive tests was
mandatory drug treatment.
Drug treatment vs. privacy
In Tecumseh, the ACLU challenged a drug testing policy that
applied not just to athletes but to every student who
participated in extracurricular activities.
The Tecumseh case differs from the Supreme Court's
student-athlete case in important ways.
Non-athletic extracurricular activities do not come at the
same cost to privacy that athletic activity does: You don't
need a physical to write for the newspaper, and you do not
have to shower with the rest of the chess team.
In one critical respect, however, the Tecumseh and Vernonia
cases are the same: The programs were aimed at getting help to
young drug users.
In Tecumseh, the test results went only to school officials,
not to the police, and the effect of positive tests was
mandatory drug treatment.
In both cases, the schools were acting in their roles as the
guardians of children, trying to protect young bodies and
minds from drugs.
ACLU can't have it both ways
The real problem with the Tecumseh case is not the outcome,
but the plaintiff's approach.
The student who sued the Tecumseh school was represented by
the ACLU. This in itself is unremarkable: The ACLU has been
challenging school testing of students in New Jersey,
Connecticut and other states for years now.
What is noteworthy, however, is that for years the ACLU and
others have promoted what they see as a closely related
position: that drug use should not be indiscriminately
criminalized, and should be viewed more as a problem of
addiction requiring treatment.
These two positions -- the one, highly protective of privacy
rights; the other, highly critical of criminalizing drug use
-- appear to be of a piece.
After all, if prosecuting people for drug possession is a bad
idea, wouldn't you want to limit the state's ability to find
out if you have been using drugs? And if students have privacy
rights just like adults, wouldn't these rights extend to
protection against random drug tests?
But these two positions are actually in tension.
Why should we be so solicitous of a student drug user's
privacy, if the only result of violating it is to provide her
with a benefit she so desperately needs?
Indeed, by emphasizing her right to privacy, we undermine the
message that treatment is a benefit at all. If she feels like
she got caught, she is unlikely to view the consequences as
benign, much less beneficial.
A case no one wins
When it comes to student drug users, the ACLU is right: Our
first approach should be to try to help them, to give them
treatment, counseling and attention.
We should do so for lots of reasons: We should never write off
children as criminals until we have tried to help. If
successful, treatment is better (and cheaper) for both the
child and society. Ultimately, trying to correct kids rather
than punishing them is what grownups are supposed to do.
Helping students is not the same thing as punishing them. The
fifth grader told to clean up his mess, the eighth grader
deprived of her cigarettes, and the junior forced to go to
Each no doubt views his or her assigned fate as punitive; each
suffers a loss of liberty at the hands of a powerful adult.
As grownups, we know better. In all of these examples, the
school is doing exactly what schools are supposed to do:
correcting students' behavior.
The students may disagree. They may, through the distorted
lens of adolescence, view all of this as essentially
adversarial. That, as Flannery O'Connor said, is regrettable,
but their tastes are not to be consulted; they are being
If treating young drug users is simply the right thing to do,
then treating their privacy with too much deference is a
To see why, assume for the moment that schoolteachers have a
reasonable suspicion that a student is using drugs.
Let's say another student tells a teacher that Justin was seen
smoking marijuana, and that Britney has bragged about using
Ecstasy at rave parties. As the law stands now, this would be
enough -- remember, students do not have the same rights that
adults have -- for the school to search the students' personal
effects and lockers, and maybe even to test them for drugs.
Justin and Britney have been "ratted out" and "busted." How
could they view anything the school does with them as anything
but invasive and punitive?
The school will have treated them as miscreants ("criminals"
is too strong a word) and they will view the school and
themselves accordingly. And if the ACLU is there to file a
lawsuit on their behalf, their view will have been vindicated
by a group of adults.
Compare this to Tecumseh's approach. Since no one is singled
out or caught, no one can be stigmatized for being tested.
Since the school's search for drugs is suspicion-less, no one
can feel suspected. Again, our kids may not see it this way.
That is OK.
A parent who says, "This will hurt me more than it does you,"
and then hits his kids, is a liar.
A school that tells students it will not punish drug users,
then randomly tests and sends drug users to treatment, is
telling the truth.