Questioning the Constitutionality of Drug Tests

By Kozlowski, James C. | Parks & Recreation, February 1999 | Go to article overview

Questioning the Constitutionality of Drug Tests


Kozlowski, James C., Parks & Recreation


As illustrated by the Vernonia decision described herein, the Supreme Court of the United States has held a specific drugtesting procedure for publicschool athletes to be constitutional based upon the following factors: the decreased expectation of privacy, the relative unobtrusiveness of the search, and the severity of the need met by the search. In so doing, however, the Supreme Court, in Vernonia, cautioned "against the assumption that suspicionless drug testing will readily pass constitutional muster in other contexts." Accordingly, a similar drug-testing program for participants in public recreation and sports programs, absent proof of a compelling governmental concern, would not necessarily "pass constitutional muster" under the Vernonia analysis described below.

Just Say No to Drug Test?

In the case of Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646, 115 S.Ct. 2386 (1995), the U.S. Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of a school districts drug-testing policy for students participating in athletic programs. In this particular instance, the student athlete drug policy adopted by School District 47J in the town of Vernonia, Ore., authorized random urinalysis drug testing of students who participated in the district's school athletics programs. The facts of the case were as follows:

Vernonia School District 47J (District) operates one high school and three grade schools in the logging community of Vernonia, Ore. As elsewhere in small-town America, school sports play a prominent role in the town's life, and student athletes are admired in their schools and in the community.

Drugs had not been a major problem in Vernonia schools. In the mid- to late 1980s, however, teachers and administrators observed a sharp increase in drug use. Students began to speak out about their attraction to the drug culture, and to boast that there was nothing the school could do about it. Along with more drugs came more disciplinary problems.

Between 1988 and 1989 the number of disciplinary referrals in Vernonia schools rose to more than twice the number reported in the early 1980s, and several students were suspended. Students became increasingly rude during class; outbursts of profane language became common.

Not only were student athletes included among the drug users, but athletes were the leaders of the drug culture. This caused the district's administrators particular concern, since drug use increases the risk of sports-related injury... The high school football and wrestling coach witnessed a severe sternum injury suffered by a wrestler, and various omissions of safety procedures and misexecutions by football players, all attributable in his belief to the effects of drug use.

Initially, the district responded to the drug problem by offering special classes, speakers, and presentations designed to deter drug use. It even brought in a specially trained dog to detect drugs, but the drug problem persisted... At that point, district officials began considering a drug-testing program. They held a parent "input night" to discuss the proposed Student Athlete Drug Policy (Policy), and the parents in attendance gave their unanimous approval. The school board approved the policy for implementation in the fall of 1989. Its expressed purpose is to prevent student athletes from using drugs, to protect their health and safety, and to provide drug users with assistance programs.

The policy applies to all students participating in interscholastic athletics. Students wishing to play sports must sign a form consenting to the testing, and must obtain the written consent of their parents. Athletes are tested at the beginning of the season for their sport. In addition, once each week of the season the names of the athletes are placed in a "pool" from which a student, with the supervision of two adults, blindly draws the names of 10 percent of the athletes for random testing. Those selected are notified and tested that same day, if possible. …

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