Missouri Bar Citizenship Education

The Holding of the Court

Vernonia, Oregon, is a small community of about 3,000 people with a student population of 690 students. In this small logging community, most of the students participated in school athletics and school athletic programs are a major focus of the community. Between 1985 and 1989, the teachers and administrators of Vernonia School District became concerned about what they observed to be a dramatic increase in the use of illegal drugs among the students, many of them student athletes. The increase in drug use corresponded with an increase in student disciplinary problems. Many student athletes openly bragged about using drugs.

Prior to 1989, administrators instituted drug education programs and used drug-sniffing dogs to combat the escalating drug problem. These measures did not work. Thus, in 1989, the administration adopted a policy that required all students who participated in interscholastic athletics to take a drug test at the beginning of the athletic season and at random times throughout the season. The urine of athletes was tested strictly for the presence of drugs. The type of test used is considered 99.94% accurate. The results were kept confidential and were strictly used by the school. Those athletes who tested positive for drugs had to participate in a drug-counseling program for six weeks. They also had to agree to weekly drug testing or face being suspended from the team for the current season and all following seasons. If a student refused to be tested, the student was suspended from inner scholastic athletics for the season.

After the policy went into effect, disciplinary complaints dropped by 50%. Teachers saw a drop in the use of drugs among their students and saw approval for drug use also drop.

James Acton was in seventh grade during the 1991-1992 school year and wanted to play football. However, he and his parents refused to sign the consent form for the drug testing. In accordance with the school policy, he was suspended from interscholastic athletics. The Actons brought a suit against the school in the federal district court, claiming that the school's policy violated James' Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Actons lost in district court and then appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. They won in the Ninth Circuit. The School district then asked the United States Supreme Court to review the case:

Justice Scalia's Views:

  • Collecting a student athlete's urine is a "search" and, therefore, the Fourth Amendment issue of whether the search is reasonable. Reasonableness is judged in this case by balancing the intrusion of requiring a student athlete to provide a urine sample against the school's interest in curbing illegal drug use.
  • School children require a greater degree of supervision than do adults. The requirements that school children receive physical examinations and have vaccinations indicate that they have a lesser expectation of privacy than the general population. Student athletes have an even lesser expectation of privacy because they undress in open locker rooms, are subject to preseason physical exams and rules regulating their conduct.
  • The urine is tested only for drugs and only a very limited group know the results. The results are not released to medical personnel or the law enforcement community.
  • The importance of deterring illegal drug use by school children cannot be doubted. Moreover, the policy of drug testing athletes is directed strictly to student athletes who are more susceptible to injuring themselves or others while using illegal drugs.

Justice O'Connor's Views:

  • The Fourth Amendment generally forbids searches of whole groups. There must be suspicion of the individual to justify the search.
  • Students who are disruptive or act suspicious should be tested--this would not violate anyone's constitutional rights.
  • By focusing on individual suspicion, the whole process is kept confidential and then "any distress arising from what turns out to be a false accusation can be minimized."
  • "It would be intolerable and unreasonable if a prohibition agent were authorized to stop every automobile on the chance of finding liquor and thus subject all persons lawfully using the highways to the inconvenience and indignity of such a search."

Justice Scalia was writing for the majority in this case. Four other judges in this 6-3 decision joined him. They were Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Ginsburg, and Thomas. Judge O'Connor wrote the minority, or dissenting, opinion and was joined by Justices Stevens and Souter. The Court held as follows:

  • Requiring a student to submit to a urine test is a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.
  • An individual's right to privacy must be balanced against the school's interest in curbing illegal during use among the student body.
  • The state, as the schoolmaster of school-age children, may exercise greater supervision over school children than it can over adults.
  • Students do not leave their constitutional rights at the school door; therefore, any search or seizure must be considered reasonable.
  • School children have a lesser expectation of privacy than free adults in that they are required to have physical examination and vaccinations in order to attend school.
  • Student athletes have an even lesser expectation of privacy in light of the fact that they often undress in open locker rooms.
  • As to the balancing test, the privacy interests involved with urine testing are minimal compared to the school's interest in curbing the use of illegal drugs among the students.
  • Student athletes have a greater potential to harm themselves and otherwise while using illegal drugs.
  • In the Vernonia School District, the results of the drug test would be kept confidential and not turned over to the authorities.