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Drug Testing Upheld

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Such observers also point out that uncertainty about the legality of student drug testing is just one reason why only a handful of school districts have instituted the practice. Cost is another major factor. Depending on which drugs are included in the test, the price tag can run from $5 per student to $50.

What's more, many district and student-athletics officials don't see the need for drug testing, especially if drug education programs are in place. "There are other ways to deal with the same issue,'' explains Lew Frederick, a spokesman for the Portland, Ore., school district.

Still, others are pleased to have another tool to fight drug abuse in their schools. "I think school districts as a whole are happy about the decision,'' says Melanie Petersen, deputy general counsel for the San Diego Unified School District, "because the Court has given them a window of opportunity to test if they see the need.''

The case, from the Oregon logging town of Vernonia, began in 1991, when Wayne and Judy Acton refused to sign a drug test-consent form that was required for their son, James, to join the 7th grade football team. [See "Current Events,'' May/June.] The district had instituted the testing program in 1989, after teachers and administrators began to notice a rise in drug use among students and a resulting increase in classroom disruptions. Some athletes were identified as being the leaders of the drug culture at the school, and coaches noticed injuries that they attributed to drug use.

The Actons, who were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, lost in the federal district court, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in their favor last year. The appellate court said that having "drug-impaired children in our schools is tragic'' but that "it is not the type of potential disaster that has caused [the courts] to find a governmental interest compelling enough to permit suspicionless testing.''

Although the case involved only the testing of student athletes, some legal observers had feared that a reversal by the Supreme Court might allow districts to require testing of other groups of students. Some had even suggested it might lead to mandatory testing of all students. The court's ruling, however, clearly did not go that far.

"They didn't close the door to testing all students, but they also didn't open it,'' says Gwendolyn Gregory, deputy general counsel of the NSBA, which filed a brief in the case backing drug testing.

Indeed, Justice Scalia's opinion focused heavily on the details of Vernonia's testing program, and he cautioned "against the assumption that suspicionless drug testing will readily pass constitutional muster in other contexts.''

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