Family & Relationships

Random Drug Testing in Schools: Is It Legal?

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For parents, teachers and administrators who deal with students each day, the thought of a drug-free middle school or high school seems idyllic. While a five-year decline in the use of alcohol, cigarettes and many illicit drugs by teenagers shows we’re on a positive path, public schools across the U.S. employ random drug testing programs in an effort to deter teen drug use and ensure students’ safety.

Yet the process of student random drug testing on students can be costly and highly controversial, involving a number of complex legal issues and constitutional challenges. If you’re a parent of a child who is middle- or high-school age, are you familiar with the drug testing policy at your school? Is random drug testing allowed? And what would happen if your child was tested for drug use — and failed?

The arguments for — and against — random drug testing

Testing usually involves a urine test that looks for drugs like marijuana, cocaine and amphetamines. Legally, random drug testing can target only kids going out for sports or other extracurricular activities. However, rules on drug testing in schools vary widely on who can be tested and the consequences of those student drug tests.

School administrators and drug prevention program leaders claim that school drug testing is a deterrent, but opponents say there is little evidence to support their theory. Many opponents debate the legality of random drug testing in schools at all, saying it violates a students’ right to privacy and the Fourth Amendment, which protects individuals from unreasonable search and seizure. Others opposed to random drug testing in schools are quick to point out the high cost associated with the process. For example, the Carroll County school district in Georgia estimates that it will spend nearly $20,000 in a single school year on student drug tests.

Additionally, questions regarding how test samples are collected, the types of drugs certain tests can detect and the accuracy of test results continue to linger over school-based random drug testing protocol. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that even extensive testing panels do not detect all psychoactive substances and can yield negative tests that result in false assurances.

Setting the precedent

Originally, high school drug testing was predominately focused on high school athletes. In the case of Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the school’s right to perform mandatory drug tests on students voluntarily participating in competitive athletic programs as “drug use by athletes risks immediate physical harm to users and those with whom they play.”

In the wake of this judgment, many schools enacted similar policies. Even school districts that weren’t experiencing a pervasive drug problem required parental and student consent to random drug testing in order for students to be allowed to participate in athletics.

Years later, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a similar ruling in the case of Pottawatomie County v. Earls (2002) that allowed the school to randomly test students for drugs if they were participating in any type of extracurricular activities, not just athletics.

Although the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutional validity of random drug testing in schools for students in extracurricular activities, there are still differing state and local laws that schools have to adhere to when initiating a drug testing policy and executing random school drug testing.

What if my child fails a drug test?

While every school has different penalties for students who violate their drug policies, the primary purpose of random drug testing is not to punish students who use drugs but to prevent drug abuse and to help students already using become drug-free. If a student tests positive for drugs, but has not yet progressed to addiction, the school can require counseling and follow-up testing. For students diagnosed with addiction, parents and a school administrator can refer them to effective drug treatment programs to begin the recovery process.

However, if a student does fail a random drug test, some consequences may include suspension from a sports team or the loss of the chance to participate in other extracurricular activities. A student could face legal issues as well. There are clear, explicit drug laws at the federal, state and local levels that address the manufacture, possession, distribution, use and advertising and labeling drugs, as well as related behavior (like driving under the influence).

What if my child refuses a random drug test?

Schools often treat a student’s refusal to test as a failed drug test, which likely means they won’t be able to participate in extracurricular activities. However, if the student has concerns about the nature of random school drug tests or how the student drug tests are being administered, it may be a good idea to discuss the school’s policies and actions with an attorney.

If you have concerns about your child’s rights at school, get a copy of the school’s policy on drug testing to determine their specific position and procedures on the matter, or consult an attorney to learn more about state and local laws on the issue.

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