Earls '05 loses court decision

by Charles Gardner | 6/28/02 5:00am

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday upheld the right of public high schools to randomly test their students for drugs, ending the nearly four-year struggle of Lindsay Earls '05 to see such practices banned.

In a 5-4 decision, justices ruled that schools' efforts to rid themselves of drug use represent a more compelling interest than the right of students to privacy.

The ruling specifically addressed student participants in extracurricular activities and team sports: prior to the decision, schools were only allowed to test athletes.

For Earls personally, the ruling came as a blow to years of effort and toil.

"I cried for about 20 minutes after I heard of the decision," she said. "This is something that's been on my mind since sophomore year ... it's an issue I've invested a lot of time and energy in."

Earls, who has been represented by lawyer Graham Boyd for the past three years, said the ruling represented "a sad day for student rights."

She initially brought the case after being pulled from a class at her Tecumseh, Ok. high school to give a urine sample. The test, which Earls said was conducted "completely without suspicion," was performed because of Earls' participation in her school's choir and academic quiz team.

"Humiliated" by the experience, and supported by the opinions of several classmates, Earls decided to sue the school, and enlisted the help of the ACLU. After initial setbacks, a court of appeals ruled in Earls' favor in the spring of 2000, prompting her high school to appeal to the Supreme Court.

In their opinion, the five concurring justices agreed that drug tests represent a fair and effective means of uprooting the serious national problem of drug use among students.

In the Court's decision, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that drug tests such as the one at Tecumseh High School are "a reasonable means of furthering the School District's important interest in preventing and deterring drug use among its schoolchildren" without violating the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.

Though Earls in her argument sought to draw a distinction between the contrasting expectations of privacy of student athletes -- whose testing was upheld by the Court in an earlier decision -- and those only participating in non-athletic activities, Thomas said that such a difference was small.

He wrote that students participants in extracurricular activities "voluntarily subject themselves to many of the same intrusions" as do student athletes, such as off-campus travel and "communal undress."

Thomas, joined in his opinion by justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Chief Justice William Rehnquist, was opposed by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote in the dissenting opinion that the school's program was "capricious, even perverse."

For her part, Earls said the decision was the wrong way to go about eliminating drug use among students.

"The whole idea is counterproductive," she said. "I know kids that dropped out of extracurricular activities because of drug testing." Earls said that out-of-school activities themselves are a proven deterrent to drug use, providing a healthy outlet for students' time and energy.

Ginsburg, writing for herself and justices Sandra Day O'Connor, John Paul Stevens and David Souter, agreed, calling extracurriculars valuable activities that "serve students of all manner."

She hoped that despite the decision, public schools would refrain from the random drug testing practiced at her school, and that future decisions would deny schools the right to test all students -- not simply extracurricular participants.

"No matter what the Supreme Court decided, maybe people will see that this isn't the right thing to do and that these drug tests don't work."