ACLU to sue over student drug tests

Negative results required in order to participate in extracurricular activities

August 18, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In a pointed challenge to a policy adopted by an increasing number of the nation's high schools, the American Civil Liberties Union said it would file suit today against an Oklahoma school district that administers drug tests to students who want to participate in extracurricular activities such as the debate team, chorus and Future Farmers of America.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court refused last year, without comment, to hear a challenge to a drug-test requirement for after-school programs at an Indiana high school, the ACLU contends that the Tecumseh School District in Oklahoma has gone a critical step further: Many extracurricular activities are tied to courses during the regular school day.

Thus, according to the ACLU and the two teen-age plaintiffs it is representing in the suit, anyone at Tecumseh High School who refuses to submit to the urine test required for the choir, for example, would have to drop the accompanying music course, which provides a credit for graduation.

And that, the civil liberties union argues, is a violation of a student's right to a public education, as well as of the Fourth Amendment protection against illegal search and seizure.

Graham Boyd, a lawyer for the ACLU's National Drug Policy Litigation Project, wrote in papers that the group intends to file that by "targeting a group of students who are relatively unlikely to use drugs" and who are participating in activities with "no physical danger," the district was not addressing a "proven problem."

In filing a complaint in federal District Court in Oklahoma City against Tecumseh, the school district of a rural town about 45 miles to the southeast, the ACLU says it is attempting to check a rash of tests for illegal substances that, while largely accepted when applied to athletes, have recently been applied to students involved in more cerebral pursuits.

Individual school districts in Idaho, North Carolina and Wyoming, among other states, have implemented similar policies for cheerleaders, language club members and chess competitors in the past year; other districts in Wisconsin, South Carolina, Ohio and Florida are considering expanding such testing to nonathletes. Proponents argue that an extracurricular activity is a privilege, not a right, and should be open only to those who are demonstrably drug- and alcohol-free.

"School districts get blamed for a lot of different things," said Linda Meoli, a lawyer representing the Oklahoma district. "Unfortunately, we have to be policemen, we have to be psychologists, we have to be parents, and educators are far down the list. Some school districts feel like they have to take a proactive role in keeping children safe."

But Lindsay Earls, 16, one of the two plaintiffs in the Oklahoma case, says the policy is less about safety than a humiliating invasion into students' lives. On Jan. 12, she said in an interview, she was pulled out of a choral rehearsal in the middle of the school day and escorted to the girls' bathroom. There, she said, a monitor stood guard outside a stall while she filled a cup with urine.

Lindsay said that while she opposed the test philosophically, she did not want to be dropped from the choir, and so she consented. "I would have been out of my activities, which is unacceptable to me," she said.

As in other districts, the policy in Tecumseh applies to "illegal and/or performance-enhancing drugs," including alcohol, marijuana and amphetamines. Though the testing was random last year, when the policy began, students were told to present samples before joining activities this year, Lindsay said.

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