Creating Safe and Drug-Free Schools: An Action Guide - September 1996

A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Drug Testing Student Athletes

If a public school has a drug problem in which its athletes play a significant part and school officials have attempted other, less intrusive drug prevention methods, the school may wish to consider adopting a policy of random drug testing of student athletes.

Promising Practices

The use of drug tests to screen students for drug use is a relatively new phenomenon in the school setting, and the law is still evolving. The Supreme Court in June 1995 upheld a policy of the Vernonia, Oregon, school district that requires all students who wish to participate in the school's athletic program to submit to periodic, random drug testing. The Vernonia policy was effective: teachers noted a decrease in drug use and an improvement in discipline.

In the fall of 1989, after undertaking previous prevention efforts that proved ineffective in stopping the district's sharp increase in drug use, the policy of random drug testing was adopted, along with very detailed procedures to ensure the accuracy of the testing, while minimizing its relative intrusiveness. Under the Vernonia policy, all students in the district who wish to participate in interscholastic athletics are required to sign a form consenting to be drug tested and must obtain the written consent of their parents. Athletes are tested at the beginning of their athletic season; once each week thereafter, 10 percent of all athletes are randomly selected from a pool for an additional drug test. A student, with the supervision of two adults, blindly draws the names of the 10 percent to be tested. Those chosen are notified and tested that same day, if possible.

Prior to the testing, each student must complete a specimen control form that bears an assigned number. The student must identify and verify any prescription medications they are taking. Students produce the samples under conditions very similar to those encountered in a public restroom. The student enters an empty locker room with an adult monitor of the same sex. Each male student produces a sample at a urinal, remaining fully clothed with his back to the monitor, who stands approximately twelve to fifteen feet behind the student. The monitor may or may not directly observe the student while he produces the sample. Female students produce samples in an enclosed bathroom stall and thus are not subject to direct observation. For both male and female students, monitors listen for normal sounds of urination. After the sample is produced, the student gives it to the monitor, who checks it for temperature and tampering and then transfers it to a vial.

The samples are then sent to an independent laboratory, which routinely and anonymously tests them for amphetamines, cocaine, and marijuana. The laboratory also may screen for other drugs, such as LSD, at the request of the district, but the identity of the student whose sample is being tested does not determine which drugs will be tested. The laboratory has a 99.94 percent rate of accuracy, and the district adheres to strict chain of custody procedures. Upon completion of its analysis, the laboratory is authorized to mail written test reports only to the superintendent and to provide test results to district personnel by telephone only after the requesting official recites a code confirming his or her authority. Only the superintendent, principals, vice principals, and athletic directors have access to the test results, and the results are not kept for more than 1 year. Under no circumstances are the results of a drug test turned over to law enforcement officers.

If a student tests positive, he or she is subject only to either suspension from the athletic team or participation in an assistance program. Specifically, if a test result is positive, a second test is conducted as soon as possible to confirm the result. If the second sample tests negative, no further action is taken. If the second sample tests positive, the student's parents are notified, and the principal meets with the student and the parents. At this meeting, the student is presented with the option of (1) participating for 6 weeks in an assistance program that includes weekly urinalysis or (2) being suspended from athletics for the remainder of the current season and the next athletic season. The student is then retested before the start of the next athletic season for which he or she is eligible. A second violation results in automatic imposition of option (2); a third offense results in suspension for the rest of the current season and the next two athletic seasons.

Legal Issues

Drug testing of a student by a public school official is a search that must comply with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment prohibits all unreasonable searches and seizures by State officers. Reasonableness is determined by balancing the governmental interest behind the search against the privacy intrusion of the search. In upholding the drug testing policy in Vernonia, the Supreme Court balanced the school's interest in conducting the drug test against the privacy interest upon which the test intrudes. The Court recognized the "government's responsibilities, under a public school system, as guardian and tutor of children entrusted to its care." The Court noted that deterring drug use by the Nation's schoolchildren, in general, is "important, perhaps compelling." It further noted the substantial physical risks posed by student athlete drug use, where the risk of immediate physical harm to the drug user or teammates is particularly high. The Court underscored the severity of the drug problem that existed within the school district whose policy was at issue and the fact that athletes were an active part of the school's drug-using population. Thus, the Court observed that the drug problem was largely fueled by the "role model" effect of athletes' drug use.

Against this governmental interest, the Court balanced the privacy intrusion endured by student athletes who are drug tested. The Court acknowledged that urinalysis drug tests are searches within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment that intrude upon a significant privacy interest. However, the Court held that athletes, unlike other members of the student population, have reduced expectations of privacy due to the "element of communal undress" inherent in athletic participation. Moreover, student athletes voluntarily subject themselves to preseason physical examinations and a higher degree of regulation than other students through compliance with codes of conduct, dress, and maintenance of minimum grade point averages. Finally, the Court noted the importance of the strict chain of custody procedures and restricted access to test results to which the district adhered.

The unique, reduced expectation of privacy of student athletes and the heightened risk posed by student athlete drug use--which is not at issue with students who are not engaged in rigorous, school-supported physical activity--provided the basis for the Court's decision upholding the school's drug testing policy. Since the Vernonia decision, courts have not addressed the constitutionality of a drug testing program that targets students other than athletes. Moreover, in upholding the random drug testing of athletes, the Supreme Court stated in fairly strong terms that any school policy that identifies students for testing in other than a random fashion, thus allowing school officials to exercise any amount of discretion, would be met with disapproval.

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