What Gives Schools the Right to Test Students for Drugs?

Random drug testing is usually done through urinalysis
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Many U.S. middle and high schools are implementing student drug testing programs. Although less than five percent of U.S. schools currently have random drug testing programs, the federal government is encouraging schools to start them and offering grants to fund them. Court cases have challenged drug testing in schools on grounds that it violates students’ privacy and Fourth Amendment rights. In most cases, the courts have sided with the schools.

1 Constitutional Rights

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives citizens protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. A urine sample, usually collected for drug testing, qualifies as a “search and seizure.” However, according to the Ohio State Bar Association, depending on how it’s done, the test may not be unreasonable. “There are two drug-testing approaches your school may take that are lawful under appropriate circumstances: individualized suspicion testing and random testing.”

2 Individualized Testing

To conduct individualized testing, school officials must have reasonable grounds to suspect a student of drug use and reasonable suspicion that searching a student will provide evidence. Schools officials, unlike police officers, don’t need “probable cause” or a search warrant to initiate testing.

3 Random Testing

In public schools that have instituted drug testing programs, school officials perform random drug testing on select populations, such as student athletes and students participating in extracurricular activities. Usually, school officials only perform the tests on a few randomly selected athletes or extracurricular activity participants. Random drug testing is considered lawful if done in accordance with one of two Supreme Court decisions.

4 The 1995 Supreme Court Decision

A 1995 Supreme Court decision ruled random drug testing of student athletes is constitutional. Random drug testing qualifies as a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, but the Court said the search is reasonable because it’s in a school’s interest to deter drug use and protect student health and safety. Regarding urinalysis for drug testing purposes, the Court held that public school athletes can’t expect as much privacy as the general public.

5 The 2002 Supreme Court Decision

A 2002 Supreme Court decision ruled random drug testing of students participating in extracurricular activities was constitutional. It ruled that random drug testing in such circumstances is reasonably effective toward deterring, preventing and detecting drug use. It recognized that the testing was only mildly invasive and that such students can expect limited privacy. Finally, it states that positive test results don’t result in disciplinary or criminal action, only in counseling and rehabilitation.

Lisa Weinstein is an award-winning, California-based journalist specializing in education. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications. She holds a California English teaching credential and uses her classroom experience to add depth to her writing.