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Ruling Fails To Deter Backers of Student Drug Tests

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Programs to test students for drug use are operating in a climate of increased legal uncertainty following a federal-court decision striking down a Texas school district's testing policy.

But most school officials who have ventured such programs for students involved in sports or other activities have expressed confidence their policies would hold up in court or say their efforts are too widely supported by their communities to be challenged.

Last month, as several schools were beginning drug-testing programs, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas found one such policy unconstitutional.

Ruling in a suit brought against the East Chambers County Consolidated Independent School District, the court said a requirement that all students involved in extracurricular activities submit to urinalysis violated the students' Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1989.)

That ruling conflicted with a decision last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which upheld a similar requirement exclusively for student athletes in Tippecanoe County, Ind. The appellate court ruled that athletes have a diminished expectation of privacy because of the physical nature of sports programs.

Drug-testing programs modeled after Tippecanoe's have been implemented in the Jenks (Okla.) Public Schools and are being considered by the Parsons (Kan.) School District and the Homewood-Flossmoor (Ill.) Community High School outside Chicago.

Similar programs are in place in Batesville, Ark., three Louisiana districts, and Greeneville, Tenn.

Almost without exception, school officials interviewed described such programs as legitimate efforts to help students get treatment for drug abuse or resist peer pressure to take drugs. Such programs, those officials emphasized, involve only students who choose to participate in athletics or other activities, and punishment consists of suspension from the activities involved.

They also maintained that community response to the testing has been overwhelmingly favorable. Often, they noted, civic groups and businesses help fund the tests.

William B. Coop, superintendent of the Batesville school district, said last week: "I still get occasional calls from the American Civil Liberties Union telling me they're watching us. I just tell them 'Good, I'm watching you all, too."'

Robert L. Shepherd, who directs anti-drug-abuse efforts for Arkansas, said the state is developing a program that may be modeled, in part, on measures adopted by the Batesville schools. He added, however, that drug-testing of students may not be among the provisions considered for statewide use.

Tennessee last year enacted a law permitting districts to force students suspected of drug abuse to submit to testing.

As of last spring, only about a dozen districts had expressed interest in adopting such policies, according to the state education department.

Some Districts Backing Off

Despite the apparent support for drug-testing policies in most districts that have them in place, the mixed signals from the federal courts have prompted some school officials to reconsider their programs.

The Tyler (Tex.) Independent School District, which enacted a urinalysis requirement for extracurricular participants on Aug. 21, will reexamine its policy next week in light of the East Chambers ruling, according to Donald Gentry, the district's assistant superintendent for administrative services.

Edward J. Rachford, superintendent of the Homewood-Flossmoor district in Illinois, said his district had been influenced by the Tippecanoe decision to narrow the scope of its proposed drug-testing program from all extracurricular participants to student athletes and cheerleaders only.

"Our law firm's advice ... is that our board of education could be buying a suit by going beyond what has already been approved" by the Seventh Circuit Court, Mr. Rachford said. The court's jurisdiction includes Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.

The Homewood-Flossmoor board last week gave preliminary approval to the more narrowly tailored policy.

Gwendolyn H. Gregory, deputy general counsel for the National School Boards Association, said the only student drug-testing program districts should feel legally comfortable with is one that tests only athletes and is motivated strictly by health concerns.

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