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It's School, Not Prison

April 15, 2002

Several U.S. Supreme Court justices seem poised--indeed, eager--to allow widely expanded drug testing in schools. Think of what that might mean in Los Angeles, where too few schools have enough textbooks, credentialed teachers or even toilet paper. Would administrators be expected to spend classroom time and buckets of money making tens of thousands of students urinate into plastic cups? That strikes us as unconstitutionally invasive, not particularly helpful in rooting out drug use and certain to sour whatever love of learning is left in these difficult educational times.

In 1995, the court upheld an Oregon school board's policy that all athletes submit to drug testing as a condition of participation in team sports. In 1998, Tecumseh High School in Oklahoma went much further, insisting that students in any after-school program be subject to routine and random tests. You want to sign up for the choir? Future Farmers of America? The chess club? Here's a cup, get in line.

Now it's up to the Supreme Court to decide whether this is constitutional. Last month, when they heard the challenge to Oklahoma's testing policy, brought by a choir member, now graduated, several justices made clear that their sympathies were with the Tecumseh school. If parents do not like the policy, Justice Antonin Scalia snapped, they can ask the school board to change it. Or send their child to a "druggie school," offered Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. A ruling is expected by summer.

Of course, it's hard enough for a student to grasp algebra or a Shakespearean sonnet without being distracted by mumbling pot heads or babbling coke addicts. But when school officials have reasonable suspicion that a student is using illegal drugs or has brought them onto campus, they already can--and should--identify that individual and, if a search or test confirms drug use, expel him or her. Schools already have the authority to search lockers and backpacks, and vigilant administrators in Los Angeles and elsewhere do that.

But what would happen if schools received a green light for drug testing in the absence of specific suspicions, as seems possible based on the justices' sharp retorts in the case? The kids doing drugs are probably too messed up to make the track team or be interested in the debate club in the first place. So under the Tecumseh policy, schools would focus their testing on the kids least likely to be stoners and make them feel like criminals in the process. Indeed, in the first year the policy was in place only three students turned up with positive drug tests. Probably lots of other kids were dissuaded from joining school clubs.

In Northern California's Modoc County, the school board was poised to go even further, requiring annual drug tests of all high school students. But the board dropped the plan last week amid protests from parents and students--one of whom asked the provocative question: Why not test the whole town?

There's a serious constitutional issue at stake here. The 4th Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches would seem to require school officials to have reasonable suspicion that a student is using drugs before subjecting him or her to a urine test.

To endorse Tecumseh's invasive and humiliating screening policy is to declare that children, as a group, leave their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door. Only prisoners, as a group, have lesser constitutional protections by law. And to reach that condition people have to be convicted of a crime first. Surely we don't think of our children as prison inmates.

Tecumseh's policy is not only extremely troubling on constitutional grounds, it's also costly, distracting and not much help in cutting drug use on campus. If only the Supreme Court could see that.

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