Mandatory drug testing in public schools is a relatively new issue for the law. Introduced during the late 1980s and expanding over the next decade, the practice of analyzing student urine for illegal drugs is carried out in a small but growing percentage of schools nationwide. Students in thousands of individual schools are affected, and more districts have indicated their interest in adopting testing, too. At present, the practice has been ruled constitutional in one form by the U.S. Supreme Court.
School drug-testing grew out of the so-called war on drugs. Prior to the 1980s, citizens were rarely tested for drugs except by law enforcement officers and primarily when there were grounds for suspicion. Exceptions existed in a few areas, notably in the routine testing of college and pro athletes and prison inmates. But along with other sweeping social changes, the drug war introduced the idea of so-called mandatory suspicionless testing in the work- place. After spreading from the public to the private sector, the trend reached public high schools in limited form — in the testing of student athletes — in the late 1980s.
Legally, mandatory suspicionless drug testing has proved controversial both in the workplace and school. The practice raises questions about how to balance a perceived social need for health and safety with privacy concerns. Not surprisingly, in light of its rulings favorable to workplace testing, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld suspicionless student drug testing in 1995. The Court already viewed the privacy rights of public school students as being lower than those generally enjoyed by adult citizens. Now, the majority saw an important social need for schools to combat drug usage, viewing the loss of student privacy as inconsequential.
However, the legal status of student drug-testing is cloudy. In large part, this is due to dramatic changes following the 1995 decision. School districts correctly saw the Supreme Court's decision as a green light, but some took the practice much further. Not merely student athletes but a range of student activities, such as band and choir, began requiring students to pass drug tests as a condition for eligibility. But some states, including Pennsylvania, have struck down suspicionless drug testing by claiming it violates the state constitution.
Important legal milestones include the following:
At both the federal and state level, the future of drug-testing policies is in question. In 2001, legal observers began to note a trend in the courts toward rejecting student drug testing as more cases ended in verdicts for plaintiffs who challenged their school policies. Although some viewed this as a shift in public attitudes, it was too early to say definitively what impact the cases would have on this developing area of law.
Contact a qualified education attorney to help you navigate education rights and laws.