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Random Drug Testing of Students Proving To Be a Popular Idea

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Drug testing of students appears to be gaining momentum on several fronts across the country.

The Miami-Dade County school board this month approved with modifications a pilot program in which any high school student could be randomly chosen for drug or alcohol testing. Some critics dismiss the program as symbolic because students must give their consent to be tested, but it is spurring consideration of similar policies elsewhere.

Last week, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis of California, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, called for public schools to adopt random drug testing of students when parents agree.

Meanwhile, a federal appeals court this month upheld the constitutionality of an Indiana district's random drug testing of students who participate in any extracurricular activity.

The Rush County, Ind., program goes beyond the drug testing of student athletes upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1995 decision in Vernonia School District v. Acton.

'Feel Good' Policy?

In Florida's 342,000-student Miami-Dade County district, the nation's fourth-largest school system, the board last fall approved the development of a drug-testing program. The initial plan, which called for random testing of high school students whose parents consented in advance, met with objections from the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

The program approved 7-2 by the school board on Jan. 14 still requires parents' advance consent, but it also provides students the right to refuse to be tested.

The board allocated $200,000 for the pilot program, which is expected to cover random tests of about 5,000 of the district's 83,000 high school students.

Once a student is chosen, the district will notify his parents and ask them to take the student to a designated testing facility within 24 hours. Only parents will learn the results of the test. The district will not be notified, and students who test positive will face no discipline from the school.

One Miami-Dade board member who voted against the program criticized it as a "feel-good policy."

"It's a public relations ploy," board member G. Holmes Braddock said during the meeting.

Andrew H. Kayton, the legal director of the ACLU of Florida, said the program was little more than a "symbolic gesture" that would not help combat illegal drug use.

But an aide to the school board member who proposed the policy defended it by saying it will give parents whose children refuse to be tested an alarm that the students may be using drugs.

"The students know that at any time their parents could pick them up after school and say, 'Guess what? I was called today by the school and you are being tested this afternoon,'" said Luis Martinez, the aide to board member Renier Diaz de la Portilla.

The Miami-Dade testing program could begin sometime in March, Mr. Martinez said.

Extracurricular Ruling

Legal experts believe the number of districts that have student drug-testing policies remains relatively small. But the Supreme Court's 1995 Vernonia decision motivated many districts to at least consider testing of student athletes.

In the 6-3 Vernonia ruling, the court cited student athletes' status as role models and their need for physical well-being in upholding the Vernonia, Ore., district's policy of random urinalysis. The court also held that the district's policy was justified by a perceived increase in drug use by some student athletes.

Since the ruling, a number of districts have adopted testing programs that include all students who participate in extracurricular activities. Indiana's 2,800-student Rush County district adopted such a program in 1996.

Parents of several children who had participated in the Rush County High School library club, the Future Farmers of America, and as an aide to the football team refused to consent to the testing program. They challenged the program as a violation of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches.

A federal district court ruled for the school district, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit upheld the ruling on Jan. 12.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled unanimously in Todd v. Rush County Schools that drug testing of all extracurricular participants was a reasonable extension of the Vernonia ruling regarding athletics.

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