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Hard lesson on drugs

The war on drugs shouldn't strip high school students of their constitutional rights, but a majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices seems to think otherwise. This week, the court debated the constitutionality of a mandatory drug testing program for public school students involved in extracurricular activities. Most justices seemed predisposed to approve the mass testing. If they do, the court will markedly expand the circumstances under which young people may be subjected to a highly invasive drug test without any suspicion of individual drug use. It will also be reinforcing a disturbing trend: that the protections of the Constitution are for adults only.

Suspicionless drug tests run counter to the Fourth Amendment's prohibitions on unreasonable search and seizure. It is hard to imagine a greater invasion of our private sphere than the government's demanding a portion of our bodily fluids. You might expect that involuntary drug testing would occur only when there is reasonable suspicion to believe an individual is using illegal drugs. But in a 1995 case out of Vernonia, Ore., the court approved mandatory testing for student athletes.

In that case, the court carved out a new exception to the Fourth Amendment, upholding the school's policy of requiring a drug test as a condition of playing on a sports team. The court said no individual suspicion was necessary because of demonstrated drug problems among student-athlete role models and the safety concerns associated with letting students play competitive sports under the influence of drugs.

Since then, about 5 percent of schools across the country have adopted drug testing for athletes. Other schools have tried to test the limits of the court's ruling. In Pottawatomie County, Okla., where the current case originates, the school district adopted a policy mandating drug tests for all middle school and high school students who want to participate in extracurricular activities, such as the band or the Future Homemakers of America.

A young high school student who wanted to be a member of the choir sued after the school collected urine from her. She passed the drug test but said she was deeply embarrassed by the invasion of privacy.

All the conditions the court used initially to justify the suspicionless search of student athletes simply don't exist at the Pottawatomie schools. There was no evidence of a serious drug problem, and those students involved in after-school activities were actually more likely to be drug-free than other students at the school. But during oral argument, a majority of justices seems intent on approving the expansion of student drug testing.

Many schools are interested in instituting random drug testing of all students. If the court approves the Pottawatomie policy, you can bet that universal drug tests won't be far behind. Drugs are a real problem in many schools, but the encroachment on our constitutional freedoms is a national problem, too. Students may be learning about the Bill of Rights in government classes, but the real-life lesson they are getting at school is that government may violate your privacy any time it sees a need to do so, and the court charged with protecting your rights won't bat an eye.

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