The legal foundation for suspicionless student drug testing rests upon Vernonia v. Acton (1995). In that landmark decision, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a school policy requiring student athletes to pass random urinalysis tests as a ground for participation in interscholastic sports. The Court rejected a Fourth Amendment claim asserting that such tests are an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. Closely watched nationwide, the decision effectively opened the door for school districts to institute similar policies of their own.
In the late 1980s, school authorities in the small logging community of Vernonia, Oregon, noticed a sharp increase in illegal drug usage and a doubling in student disciplinary problems. They observed that student athletes were leaders of the drug culture. Officials responded by offering anti-drug classes and presentations, along with conducting drug sweeps with dogs. After these education and interdiction efforts failed, a large segment of the student body was deemed to be in “a state of rebellion,” according to findings of the Oregon District Court.
With the support of some parents, school officials next implemented a drug-testing policy for student athletes in fall 1989. It had three goals: prevent athlete drug use, protect student health and safety, and provide drug assistance programs. It imposed strict eligibility requirements: parents of student athletes had to submit a consent form for drug testing of their children, and the student athletes had to submit to tests. Once weekly the school randomly tested 10 percent of all student athletes by taking urine samples that were analyzed for illegal drug usage—a procedure known as urinalysis.
A legal challenge to the policy arose when a student and his parents refused to consent to drug testing and he was denied the chance to play football. Their lawsuit charged that the district violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures as well as his privacy rights under the Oregon state constitution. The District Court rejected their claims, but they won on appeal. The school district then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In its 6-3 decision, the majority followed earlier precedents. In particular, it looked back on its landmark decision regarding privacy for public school students, New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985). That decision extended the great basis in U.S. law for privacy—Fourth Amendment protections—to public school students. It held that they, too, were protected from “unreasonable” searches and seizures of their persons and property by authorities, since public school authorities are agents of the government. But T.L.O. set the standard that Fourth Amendment rights are “different in public schools than elsewhere.” In lowering student rights, the Court did so observing that public school authorities have a compelling interest in supervision and maintaining order that outweighs individual student rights.
In Vernonia, the majority went further. First, it distinguished the rights of student athletes from the already reduced privacy rights of the public school student body. Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion stated that student athletes have an even lower expectation of privacy since they routinely undress in locker rooms, noting that “school sports are not for the bashful.” Second, it approved the particulars of the Vernonia school district’s policy. The urinalysis was performed under minimally intrusive conditions similar to those in the schools’ restrooms. There was no concern that school officials might arbitrarily accuse certain students because every student athlete was subject to being tested. Furthermore, participation was ultimately voluntary, since no one was required to play sports. And finally, the school’s goals in reducing a serious drug abuse and disciplinary problem justified the testing.
Three justices dissented. Writing for the dissenters, Sandra Day O’Connor observed that mass suspicionless searches of groups had been found unconstitutional throughout most of the court’s history, except in cases where the alternative—searching only those under suspicion—was ineffectual. She concluded that the school’s policy was too broad and too imprecise to be constitutional under the Fourth Amendment.