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Texas case pits a son's rights against a school's drug policy

July 01, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

Larry Tannahill was an unlikely rebel. A farmer, husband and father of two boys, he had spent his entire life in his hometown of Lockney, Texas, without challenging the values of a farming community where cotton and high school football are royalty.

But when the local school board adopted mandatory drug testing for students in 2000, Tannahill balked. He believed that the board had violated his rights as a parent and was forcing him, in effect, to tell his sons that he suspected them of drug use.

With help from the American Civil Liberties Union, Tannahill sued the school board on grounds that mandatory drug testing would violate his sons' 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

The fight put Tannahill on a collision course not just with school officials and teachers, but also with friends and neighbors who supported the drug testing as a way to stop the scourge of drugs that seemed to be descending on Lockney.

"Larry v. Lockney," a well-reported, first-rate documentary airing at 10 tonight on KCET, records that collision by visiting the farms, classrooms, living rooms, diners and gas stations of a tiny community (2,200 residents) that found itself the focus of unwanted national media attention when the testing policy was branded the toughest in the nation. "I never did think much about the drug war until it burst through my door," Tannahill explains.

Although "Larry" is implacably sympathetic to Tannahill, it finds no villains among those who supported the policy, just earnest adults trying to protect students from drugs and becoming frustrated at a legal process that seemed to be thwarting the will of the majority.

School board member John Quebe explains that until the court blocked the testing, teachers reported a significant decrease in students coming to class on marijuana. "We knew the policy worked," says Quebe. "It was night and day, the way the students were acting after a weekend."

When a friend accuses Tannahill of opening a can of worms for the community, he replies in his spare style, "No. You opened it, I just kicked it over."

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