Supreme Court takes '05's case

by Karla Kingsley | 11/21/01 6:00am

When Lindsay Earls '05 was pulled from her classroom to give a urine sample, she felt "humiliated." So she decided to sue her high school, charging that they had infringed her rights to privacy. The case took off from there -- in March 2002, her complaint will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In October of her sophomore year, Earls received a routine drug test due to her participation in choir, show choir and the academic team. Earls is suing her high school on the basis that this testing was an invasion of her privacy under the Fourth Amendment.

In an earlier ruling, (Vernonia vs. Board of Education) the Supreme Court established that athletic teams could be tested for drug use because, according to Earls, "they were leaders of the drug culture in that particular school." By the nature of athletic activity, they had already surrendered some of their privacy rights.

Although Earls agrees with this ruling, she said that testing of non-athletic extra-curricular teams is unconstitutional.

"Non-athletic teams are not already giving up their privacy. We didn't have to get dressed in front of each other or submit to physical exams," she said.

Earls contacted the ACLU and they agreed to provide a lawyer, Graham Boyd, for the case in March 1999. In August, the case was filed in an Oklahoma district court, where the judge quickly ruled in favor of the school.

Boyd and Earls would not surrender. According to Boyd, the rule had serious implications.

"The school's policy forces students to choose between forfeiting their privacy and forfeiting their chances of going to a good school such as Dartmouth," said Boyd. He explains that in order to be accepted a student must not only have outstanding grades, but extracurriculars as well. In Earls' school it was impossible to participate in any extracurricular activity without a drug test.

"The school is encouraging kids to hang out on street corners, instead of participating in extracurricular school activities," said Boyd.

Earls appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, and in the spring of 2000, the court ruled in her favor. This time, Earls won in a 2-1 decision, but her school appealed to the Supreme Court.

Despite what is apparently a setback, Earls is excited.

"I was signed into Blitz, as usual, and I got a Blitz from my lawyer, and I thought, 'Oh great, what does he want now?'"

Her attitude changed quickly when she opened the message. "My hands were shaking, and I ran down the hall to tell Matt Fitzgerald, my UGA [undergraduate advisor], and my hallmates. Then I got on the phone with my lawyer and called everyone at home. I must have made 15 calls."

"I never expected it to go this far," she added.

Boyd was more subdued. "My feelings are mixed. Having won in the court of appeals, any further review risks an overturn of the decision, but the issue of drug testing in schools is of national importance and is one that the Supreme Court eventually needs to resolve," he said.

Boyd emphasized that in this case, their concern is not only holding up constitutional rights. It is also a "concern for student health. The drug-testing policy of Lindsay's school is opposed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Drug testing is counter-productive," Boyd said, adding, "The single most proven method of preventing drug abuse among teenagers is to engage in extra-curricular activities. The school is setting an obstacle to these activities."

The Board of Education was tight-lipped on the issue.

One secretary at the Board offices said, "Well, of course we are happy about it," but the chair of the Board, Tom Willsy, declined to comment.

Word spread quickly in Tecumseh, Okla., Earls' hometown. "The principal made an announcement in school [about the case] ... my friends were all very supportive, but I know people talked behind my back when I first filed the case. There were a lot of rumors about the drugs I was supposedly on, even though I tested negative in three different tests," Earls said.

One of those supportive friends from Tecumseh was Robby Lewis -- now a student at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt. "I totally agree with Lindsay," Lewis said. "I am glad someone from our school actually stood up and said something ... I am really proud of her. I don't think many people would have the guts to do what she did."

Earls expressed concern about how her sister, Lacey -- who is also named as a plaintiff in the case -- was being treated. "Some students were treating my sister badly, and I had to put my foot down about that. That makes me angry ... don't even mess with my little sister."

Earls' lawyer recently arranged a dinner for her to meet people who had worked on the case, including a clerk to one of the Supreme Court justices.

"I met some awesome people. It's really good to have that support," Earls said.

The case will be heard sometime in March 2002 in Washington, D.C., unless the school asks for an extension.

Earls will not testify, although she was asked to provide a deposition.

"I was questioned for two hours. They tried to get anything out of me. I was questioned about drug use, dating habits, everything. They knew I wasn't very sketchy, so my deposition was actually the shortest one," Earls said. "The school board president was so shaken after her deposition that she got in a car accident on her way home."

What does Earls hope to gain from the lawsuit? "Win or lose, I want a definite stance on this issue from the Supreme Court, because at this point, there isn't one. The ambiguity of the Vernonia ruling was what led to other schools thinking they could test anyone."

As to the ruling, Boyd "tries not to make predictions." The issue was not one that was "split cleanly between liberals and conservatives," he said.

The Earls vs. Board of Education is the first case Boyd will argue in the Supreme Court, although he has worked on others in the past. Boyd said that he is confident.

"I feel like I will be well prepared. This is a good opportunity to set the law straight in the right direction," he said.

Although excited, Earls is taking the drama in stride. She has calmly cut articles from papers such as The New York Times, The Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal. She was also featured in Teen People and National Public Radio.

Earls is glad that she could have this experience. "I have learned that even though someone is young, you can definitely make a change, if there is something you don't like, you can do something about it. Just go for it."