Drug Testing in Public Schools


Picture this: you come home from work on a Tuesday night to find on your kitchen table a high school Athletic Contract. In order for your son to play on the varsity basketball team, both you and your son must sign the contract and abide by its terms. A lot of the information is exactly what you expected: your child must attend class and receive passing grades, attend practice on a regular basis, and represent the school with respect and honor. Another portion of the contract deals with the ever-touchy subject of chemical substances. As expected, your child is not permitted to engage in the use of drugs and/or alcohol, and participation in such drug-related activity sets in motion a series of consequences that could result in the ultimate removal of your child from his respective athletic team. You begin to wonder, "If my son is suspected of participating in this type of activity, can the school force him to take a drug test?" The questions begin to flood your mind, and you wonder what your child’s rights are as it pertains to this matter.

In this article, we’ll explore the issue of whether a school can subject students to drug testing. We’ll explore this popular topic within the confines of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and we’ll outline the tests that apply under these circumstances.

Next, we’ll explore the Fourth Amendment.

The Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is part of The Bill of Rights. This particular amendment reads as follows:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized".

In order for the Fourth Amendment to apply under any given situation, the government must be conducting the search in question. The amendment does not protect an individual against searches conducted by a private citizen. Here, public school officials who administer school searches are not considered private citizens, but rather agents of a public entity. The United States Supreme Court has concluded that "in carrying out searches and other disciplinary functions…school officials act as representatives of the State, not merely as surrogates for the parents, and they cannot claim the parents’ strictures of the Fourth Amendment." New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 336 (1985). In other words, as a public servant, such action by a school official is subject to the protections set forth in the Fourth Amendment.

In addition to the conclusion that the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizers extended to acts by public school officials, it was further determined by the Supreme Court that the "probable cause" standard articulated in the Fourth Amendment was too high a standard to be applied in school searches. Instead, the Court ruled that the controlling standard would be "reasonable suspicion" in determining the constitutionality of such searches. This essentially means that a search would be constitutional if there were reasonable grounds to believe that such a search would likely produce evidence that the student violated either a school rule or a law.

Next, we’ll explore how this information applies to administering drug tests to students in public schools.

Drug Testing

So, how exactly does drug testing in a public school relate to the Fourth Amendment? Well, requiring a student to undergo a drug test is considered to be a "search" that falls within the meaning of this constitutional provision. Remember, the Fourth Amendment guarantees "the right of the people to be secure in their persons…from unreasonable searches." Let’s take a look at how case law has constructed the way in which this provision applies to public school students in the United States.

In the 1995 case of Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, the Supreme Court held that random drug testing for public school students who participated in athletic programs was constitutional (515 U.S. 646). The Court reiterated how the role of school officials was not only custodial in nature, but also a function of the State. This holding was later expanded to include those students who participated in any competitive extracurricular activities. Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822, 838 (2002).

So what does this mean for you and your child? In very recent times, the Supreme Court has determined that your son or daughter could be required to submit to random urinalysis testing if he or she participates in competitive, school-related activities. More likely than not, your child would only be asked to submit to such testing if school officials had reason to believe that he or she was engaging in drug-related behavior.

Finally, let’s wrap this article up by going over a few key points.


In this article, we’ve explored the issue of whether a school can subject students to drug testing, and whether this is a constitutional search under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

So when your child brings home a high school Athletic Contract, make sure to sit your youngster down and have a serious talk about the consequences he or she may face if school officials suspect drug-related activity. Be sure to point out that after a certain number of violations, your child could be removed from his or her respective team, and could be prohibited from participating in something memorable and great.

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