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Student drug tests clear court

Proclaiming that privacy rights sometimes must be sacrificed to the war on drugs, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that public middle and high schools can force students to undergo drug testing as a condition of playing sports.

The 6-3 decision, which allows school districts to enforce mandatory drug testing whether or not they have evidence of possible drug use, could affect millions of student athletes.

But Tampa Bay school officials said widespread drug testing can be expensive _ more than $100 per athlete _ and the ruling doesn't necessarily mean they will start drug testing any time soon. The Florida High School Activities Association several years ago investigated drug testing for teams in the playoffs, but rejected the idea because of cost, concerns about the reliability of the tests and privacy concerns.

"I think it's an evil necessity," said Calvin Baisley, a baseball coach at Land O'Lakes Senior High School in Pasco County. "However, when you start factoring in the cost, I just don't see it as being very realistic."

The court majority ruled that urine screening tests under controlled conditions at school do not violate the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches, have a negligible impact on student privacy and were justified by evidence of a drug epidemic in the Oregon school district where the case originated.

"It seems to us self-evident that a drug problem largely fueled by the "role model' effect of athletes' drug use . . . is effectively addressed by making sure that athletes do not use drugs," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority.

Never before had the court authorized official intrusion into bodily privacy, without 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.

Timothy Volpert, the attorney representing the school district, argued that schoolchildren have more limited rights than adults in the general population.

The court agreed.

The ruling represented a victory for the Clinton administration, which defended the tests to keep order in classrooms and ensure safety of the athletes. President Clinton said it "sends exactly the right message to parents and students: Drug use will not be tolerated in our schools."

The dissenters _ Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, John Paul Stevens and David Souter _ blasted the majority for ignoring years of precedent requiring individualized suspicion of wrongdoing for government searches. O'Connor said mass searches without suspicion of wrongdoing have been illegal for most of U.S. history.

"I cannot avoid the conclusion that the . . . suspicionless policy of testing all student-athletes sweeps too broadly and too imprecisely to be reasonable under the (Constitution)," she said.

American Civil Liberties Union legal director Steven Shapiro said the decision "makes students' rights the latest casualty of the war on drugs."

Ten years ago, the court gave principals and teachers the power to search school lockers and girls' purses for drugs.

The drug-testing program at issue was adopted in 1989 by a school district in the small logging town of Vernonia, Ore., to protect athletes from physical injury and stem what it called an epidemic of drug use and disciplinary problems. The tests cover amphetamines, marijuana, cocaine and LSD but not alcohol or steroids. Penalties range from participation in drug treatment programs to suspension from school sports.

Male students produce samples at a urinal, with observers standing behind them, while females go into a stall, with monitors listening for any sounds of tampering. The school notifies parents when a student tests positive, but the results may not be disclosed to criminal authorities or used for school disciplinary proceedings.

Only two students tested positive in 3{ years, but the tests were challenged as a matter of principle by the parents of James Acton, 12, who was suspended from the football team when he refused to submit to the test. His father, Wayne, said Monday that drug tests send the wrong message to kids, telling them they have to submit to government authority without question.

"We think it will make children worse citizens in the long run," Wayne Acton said.

Gwendolyn Gregory, deputy general counsel for the National School Boards Association, said the ruling, though limited to drug testing of student-athletes, could easily be extended to students participating in overnight trips or other activities.

In other action Monday, the Supreme Court:

Threw out a federal appeals court ruling that said student-led prayer at a public school graduation is unconstitutional. But the justices refused to decide whether students should be allowed to pray at school ceremonies.

Rejected a free-speech challenge to a child-pornography law that aims to keep minors from being used in films, videotapes and photographs showing sexually explicit conduct.

Agreed to decide whether local telephone companies may enter the cable television business and sell programing directly to their customers.

_ Times staff writer Sharon Ginn contributed to this report.