If you’re a public-school student on a sports team or a show choir, the Supreme Court ruled that you have a diminished expectation of privacy. In Board of Education v. Earls, the Court held that Tecumseh, Okla., schools could continue their policy of requiring all middle and high school students to consent to drug testing before participating in any extracurricular activity.
The 2002 case involved two high school students and their parents, who alleged that the school’s drug tests violated the Fourth Amendment. Lindsay Earls was a member of the show choir, the marching band, the Academic Team, and the National Honor Society, while Daniel James sought to participate in the Academic Team. The students alleged that the school’s blanket drug-testing policy “neither addresses a proven problem nor promises to bring any benefit to students or the school.”
The District Court ruled in favor of Board of Education, but the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision. The Court of Appeals held that a school must show that there’s a drug abuse problem among a sufficient number of students before imposing a testing program, which they said the school district failed to do.
The Supreme Court then stepped in with a 5-4 opinion in favor of the Board of Education, and concluded that the drug-testing program was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
In his opinion, Justice Thomas held that schools have an interest in detecting and preventing drug use among its students, and that the urine analysis program did so without violating the students’ privacy rights. While Thomas acknowledged “schoolchildren do not shed their constitutional rights when they enter the schoolhouse,” he also stressed that Fourth Amendment rights are different in public schools, which have a responsibility to protect their students. “A student’s privacy interest is limited in a public school environment where the State is responsible for maintaining discipline, health, and safety,” Thomas wrote, adding that the urinalysis process was “minimally intrusive.”
The two high-school students argued that since they are participating in nonathletic extracurricular activities, they should have a stronger expectation of privacy than athletes. But the Court rejected this argument, since students in nonathletic groups voluntarily subject themselves to intrusions in the same way athletes do.
In his opinion, Thomas went into great detail about the privacy concerns over taking a urinalysis test. Urination has been described by the Supreme Court as “an excretory function traditionally shielded by great privacy,” although the degree of intrusion does depend on how the urine sample is monitored.
Justice O’Connor’s dissent referenced a previous dissenting opinion she wrote for Veronica School District 47J v. Acton, a similar 1995 case involving suspicionless drug testing of student athletes. In that case, O’Connor noted that schools have substantial leeway in carrying out “their traditional mission of responding to particularized wrongdoing.”
However, she argued that targeting specific students is entirely different from conducting a sweeping search of everyone. “By contrast,” O’Connor wrote, “intrusive, blanket searches of school children, most of whom are innocent, for evidence of serious wrongdoing are not part of any traditional school function of which I am aware.”