Law backs compulsory drug tests for pupils

Lucy Hodges

Lucy Hodges reports on a Supreme Court ruling that has alarmed the civil liberties lobby.

American children who want to take part in sports and athletics may be required to undergo tests for drugs, regardless of whether they are suspected of taking them, under a Supreme Court ruling made public last week.

The decision means that millions of schoolchildren in middle schools and high schools across the United States could have to provide urine samples if their school district adopts a policy of routine drug testing of athletes.

The case was brought by James Acton, aged 12 at the time the lawsuit was filed, from Vernonia, a small logging town in Oregon, who was kept off the school football team because his parents refused to sign a consent form for the school district's athlete drug testing programme.

There was no suggestion that he took drugs, but his parents argued that the tests breached James's constitutional rights to privacy.

School officials in Vernonia claimed that they were forced to introduce testing because disciplinary problems at the local high school had got out of hand. Students were coming to school high on drugs and under the influence of alcohol.

They were singing and dancing during lessons, taking no notice of their teachers and creating chaotic conditions, in which it was impossible to teach or maintain order.

In addition, the school officials reported that athletes, who were popular role models, as they are in most high schools, were among the ringleaders in this disorder.

They also said they feared that teenagers high on drugs and taking part in sport were particularly susceptible to injury. Therefore they brought in a new policy of requiring all athletes to be tested at the beginning of the sports season and intermittently thereafter.

The Supreme Court decided by a vote of 6 to 3 to endorse that policy. Lee Brown, the White House adviser on drug control, said the decision was a victory for kids and drug-free schools. Brown said he expected middle and high schools all over America to begin routine drug testing.

But not everyone was so enthusiastic. Steven Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the decision made students' rights the latest casualty of the War on Drugs.

But the Court rejected the argument that the urine analysis violated students' constitutional rights.

The students were children, it said. They therefore lacked the rights of adults, and were in the custody of school officials.

"Deterring drug use by our nation's schoolchildren is at least as important as enhancing efficient enforcement of the nation's laws against the importation of drugs," said Justice Anthony Scalia.

This is the first time that the Supreme Court has ruled on drug-testing in schools.

Programmes to test pupils for drugs have been rare until now because lawyers have seen them as constitutionally dubious. The new ruling could create a bandwagon effect.

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