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Judge Bars District's Mandated Drug Tests

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Officials of a New Jersey school district cannot require all students to submit to a urine test for drug use because it violates their constitutional protections, a state court ruled in a precedent-setting decision last week.

The Dec. 9th decision by Judge Peter Ciolino of the New Jersey Superior Court is the first known ruling on the legality of mass chemical screenings of students for drug use.

In a written opinion, Judge Ciolino said the drug-testing policy of the Henry P. Becton High School in East Rutherford, N.J., violates the students' right under the U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. In addition, he said the tests violate their right to due process of law and their "legitimate expectations" of privacy and personal security.

In a meeting shortly after the decision was handed down, the Carlstadt-East Rutherford school board voted to delay considering whether to appeal the ruling until its next meeting on Jan. 8.

Deterrent Effect

Chemical testing for drugs has been adopted or explored by a small but growing number of public-school districts in the past year as a means of deterring the use of illegal drugs among students.

The American Civil Liberties Union has backed legal challenges to these policies by parents and students, arguing that they violate students' constitutional rights.

Five Becton students joined with the aclu in challenging the policy that the district's board approved in June.

The policy required that all 516 students at the high school submit to urine testing for traces of 26 illegal drugs as part of a comprehensive medical examination before the beginning of the school year. The testing requirement was suspended, however, until the court suit could be decided.

Other known drug-testing policies adopted by school districts have had narrower purposes. For example, a policy adopted last month by the Saint James Parish school district in Louisiana limits testing to athletes, on the grounds that the district has a legitimate interest in safeguarding the safety of athletes whose motor skills could be impaired by drug use.

In Odenheim v. Carlstadt-East Rutherford Regional School District, lawyers for the New Jersey school district argued that the procedure was not a "search" as defined by the Fourth Amendment. Rather, they said, testing urine for evidence of drug use is a medical procedure that does not differ substantially from their regular testing for symptoms of other medical ailments.

Privacy Rights Violated

But Judge Ciolino said in his ruling that the school was attempting ''to control student discipline under the guise of a medical procedure."

He said that even if he had accepted the district's position "that this is strictly and solely a medical examination to inquire into a medical condition, a position which this Court does not accept, I would still find that their activities violate the reasonable privacy expectations of schoolchildren."

Judge Ciolino's ruling, though the first on testing for all students, marked the second time that a court has ruled that requiring students to submit to urinalysis is unconstitutional.

Last summer, U.S. District Judge Franklin Waters ruled that Arkadelphia, Ark., school officials could not require students suspected of being under the influence of drugs to undergo a urinalysis because the test would violate their 14th Amendment right to due process.

'Unreasonable Searches'

Judge Ciolino's ruling relied heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision earlier this year in New Jersey v. T.L.O.

In that case, the Court held that searches by school officials are justified when the officials have "reasonable grounds" for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence of a violation. Furthermore, the search methods must be "reasonably related to the objectives of the search and [must not be] excessively intrusive," wrote the Court.

In the Odenheim case, Judge Ciolino found that the district's urinalysis policy was "not reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which initially justified the interference."

He said evidence entered in the case by the district indicating that 28 of the 516 students had sought counseling during the 1984-85 school year for drug-related problems did not indicate a sufficient problem to justify a urinalysis search of all students.

He said the school's policy "already provides for expulsion and/or suspension of students who are involved with drug activity."

The district's policy of barring from school any students who refused to take the test also violated their 14th Amendment rights, the judge held, noting previous court rulings that students facing serious disciplinary sanctions such as expulsion or suspension are guaranteed procedural due process.

Possible Impact

"I think this decision sends a message to schools that they can't have blanket drug tests," said John L. Weichsel, a lawyer in private practice who handled the case on a voluntary basis for the aclu

There are believed to be no other pending court cases on the issue, although the New York branch of the aclu has said it will contest a policy adopted in October by the Phelps-Clifton Springs school district that calls for random urine testing of students on a "voluntary" basis.

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