One might say that Lockney, a small farming community in the Texas panhandle, was ahead of its time. A couple of years ago, with local drug trafficking and addiction on the rise, the local school district adopted one of the strongest drug-testing policies in the country: all kids in Grades 6 through 12 were subject to mandatory drug tests, with spot checks throughout the semester. "Our purpose was to provide a deterrent for the students, not to catch them," says superintendent Raymond Lusk. "If they were caught, there'd be consequences, certainly, but that's not why we did it."
At $18 a student per test, the price was manageable, and the district's administrators believed that random testing of even 10% of the student body each month was worth it. That is, until a parent, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.), sued to have the testing stopped, claiming a violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. The district settled the suit and discontinued testing after just one year.
The Lockney officials are vindicated by last week's Supreme Court ruling that random drug testing of students involved in extracurricular activities is constitutional. Still, Lusk is reluctant to give testing another try for fear of rekindling local opposition. "It's opened the door," he says of the ruling. "We just don't know how wide or even if we want to walk through it again or not."
The court's 5-to-4 decision came in a case brought by an Oklahoma girl who objected to her town's policy of randomly testing students who participated in any school-sponsored group. It expanded a 1995 ruling that sanctioned drug tests for members of school athletic teams. Civil libertarians have argued that such policies violate young people's privacy. But in his majority opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, "Securing order in the school environment sometimes requires that students be subjected to greater controls than those appropriate for adults."
Even those administrators who have the will to test may not have a way to do it. Many of them say testing is simply too expensive for their cash-starved districts. The cost of testing a student for drugs ranges from $10 to $20, while the more complicated drug-testing kits for athletes can be double that price because of the need to monitor for performance-enhancing steroids. Even after the court upheld drug testing of student athletes, only a fraction of school districts followed through. Many holdouts cite budget constraints; others cite privacy issues. A.C.L.U. attorney Graham Boyd warns, "If drug testing now becomes a rite of passage...the door will be cracked open wider to government demands for DNA, medical records, financial information and other personal data."
Fairness is another concern. Edwin Darden, senior staff attorney for the National School Boards Association, agrees that the ruling "captures the imagination that some nice kid who blows the trumpet, is in the chess club or is in the Future Farmers of America will be subjected to all these drug tests." But in practice Darden expects "a nonreaction" similar to what followed the 1995 ruling on athlete testing.