WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Thursday to decide whether all high school students who participate in extracurricular activities beyond sports can be forced to undergo random drug tests.
A ruling on the issue, which can be expected by next spring, should clarify how far public school officials can go in requiring drug tests of students.
The justices have said that students have lesser privacy rights than adults. Six years ago, they upheld an Oregon school district's policy of testing school athletes for drug use.
School officials in the small town of Vernonia, Ore., said they had a serious drug problem. Athletes serve as role models and must be seen as drug-free and, beyond that, young athletes would risk serious injury if they were using drugs while playing sports, officials said.
For all these reasons, the Supreme Court approved the school's drug-testing policy and rejected the claim that it violated the 4th Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.
Since then, school officials in some communities have sought to extend mandatory drug testing to all students who participate in extracurricular activities.
In 1998, the Tecumseh School District in rural Oklahoma decided to require random urine tests of high school students who participated in such activities as band, choir, cheerleading and Future Farmers of America.
Their urine samples were checked for such illegal drugs as cocaine, marijuana and amphetamines, but not alcohol. The local police were not told of positive tests. Instead, students were counseled to quit using drugs.
Two students--Lindsay Earls, who was in the choir, and Daniel James, who was on the academic team--challenged the policy as unconstitutional and won before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver.
That court's 2-1 majority said that the drug problem in Tecumseh was "negligible" in general and that nothing regarding choir members and cheerleaders indicated a "special need" to test them for drugs.
But the Supreme Court voted to take up the school district's appeal in the case, Board of Education vs. Earls, 01-332.
For their part, the justices have been unable to devise a clear rule on when the government can impose mandatory drug testing.
Normally, the 4th Amendment requires officers to have specific evidence before they can search someone. But in 1989, the court said that this rule of individualized suspicion can be waived if the government has a "special need" for drug testing. On that basis, the court upheld a federal regulation requiring urine testing of railroad crews after an accident. Separately, the justices also upheld the drug testing of U.S. Customs agents who carry guns and inspect for narcotics.
But they balked in 1997, striking down a requirement by the state of Georgia that candidates for high state offices undergo drug tests.
Meanwhile on Thursday, the court agreed to decide whether the Securities and Exchange Commission can sue brokers who steal money from their clients.
Since 1933, the SEC has policed the stock market by going after fraud in the buying and selling of stocks.
But this year, a federal appeals court said police power did not extend to ordinary thefts by a stockbroker.
Charles Zandford, a broker from Bethesda, Md., was convicted of stealing $343,000 that had been entrusted to him. Reading the federal law narrowly, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson said this theft was not "in connection with the purchase or sale of any security," and, therefore, was not covered by the Securities Act.
In its appeal, the commission said that this ruling, if allowed to stand, would greatly weaken its policing powers, and the justices voted to hear the case in SEC vs. Zandford, 01-147.