The use of illicit drugs has persistently been a problem among minors. This problem especially began to grow during the mid to late 1980’s. It was during this time that school officials in Vernonia, Oregon realized that drug use and disciplinary actions resulting from it, was a growing problem among the student body-especially student athletes. With this in mind, they began offering classes designed to deter students from using drugs. Their attempts; however, had very little, if any, impact. The next step was to reach out to the school district’s parents and propose a drug testing policy. School officials set up an “input” night where they could talk to the parents about the problem, tell them about the proposed policy and get their input. The response from the parents was that of unanimous approval. The school district’s new policy which would require all students participating in athletic programs to consent to drug testing, was put into effect in the fall of 1989.
Under this policy, all students would be required to submit to a drug test at the beginning of the season for the sport they played and at random throughout the season. In the fall of 1991,respondent Acton, who was a seventh grader, signed up to play football but was denied the opportunity to play based on his and his parent’s refusal to sign the consent form for the drug testing. In response to this denial, the Acton’s filed suit in Federal District Court. In their suit, they sought declaratory and injunctive relief based on the grounds that the drug testing policy violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. Their claims were denied by the District Court after a bench trial; however, this decision was reversed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth District.
After granting a review of the case, the Supreme Court determined in a 6 to 3 vote that the policy in question, which was designed to reduce district-wide drug use did not violate the protections against unreasonable searches and seizures as set forth in the 4th Amendment. The rationale of the Court was based on numerous factors including: the method used to collect the urine sample, the diminished privacy expectations of the students, the governmental interest in the safety of the district’s athletes, and the fact that only one family objected to having their child drug tested. These factors were best described by Justice Scalia who gave the opinion of the Court.
In his opinion Justice Scalia explained that the conditions under which the urine specimens were collected were comparable to those found in public bathrooms which men, women, and children used on a daily basis. Moreover, students had a diminished expectation of privacy due to the school environment where they routinely submitted to physical examinations and other various intrusions on their privacy. Their expectation of privacy was even further reduced because of the communal environment of the locker rooms and showers. Both of these areas in the Vernonia school district were the standard that was found in most schools; without private shower stalls or dressing rooms. As is common in most locker rooms, some of the bathroom stalls lacked doors.
Another issue the court took into consideration was that during school hours and at school sponsored events, the school acts as guardian of the child, therefore, the question that must be answered is whether the search is one that a reasonable guardian would perform. This led to the question of whether the concern for the safety of the minors was more important than the minimal intrusion into their privacy. The answer to this question was a resounding yes. It was also noted that the Acton’s were the only family who objected to the policy. Their sole objection was not considered to be sufficient enough to contradict the judgment of everyone else involved as to what was considered to be both reasonable and in the best interest of the child.
Justice Scalia, in rejecting the Acton’s claim that drug tests should only be performed when suspicion of drug
use was present, stated that the 4th Amendment does not require the least intrusive methods available. He went onto to say that, “testing on suspicion may lead to administrative problems and could be used as a badge of shame placed on troublesome but not drug-likely students”. Justices O’Connor, Stevens and Souter, had other opinions. In their dissent they held that suspicion must be present to warrant drug testing of student athletes. According to Justice O’Connor, “Suspicionless searches have historically been held to be unreasonable, but recently have been permitted only where ‘a suspicion-based regime would be ineffectual”.
Deterring drug use among our children is as important as ensuring their safety regardless of the activities involved; whether it be sport related or not. To allow athletes to take their place on the field under the influence of drugs or alcohol demonstrates a level of neglect by those in charge. Injuries are possible without the addition of outside factors but when they are added into the equation, the risk of injury is needlessly doubled.
Vernonia Sch. Dist. 47j v. Acton, 515 US 646 (1995). (n.d.). Retrieved June 24, 2010, from Cornell University Law School: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/94-590.ZO.html
Vernonia School District v. Acton-US Supreme Court Summary and Oral Argument. (n.d.). Retrieved June 24, 2010, from Oyez-Supreme Court Media: http://www.oyez.org/cases/1990-1999/1994/1994_94_590